Hybrid Hominin: This Girl’s Mother and Father Came From Two Different Species

By Nathaniel Scharping | August 22, 2018 12:00 pm
(Credit: Max Planck Institute)

Researchers uncovered the first direct evidence of hominin interbreeding in the bone fragments of a 13-year-old girl from Russia’s Altai Mountains. (Credit: Max Planck Institute)

Humans think of themselves as exceptional among the creatures inhabiting Earth. But it wasn’t always so.

Multiple groups of humans once co-existed with Homo sapiens, including Neanderthals and the mysterious Denisovans. And we did more than simply live alongside them — traces in our DNA reveal that our ancestors also interbred with other human species.

Now, for the first time, researchers have found direct evidence of this interbreeding in the form of a 13-year-old girl from Russia’s Altai Mountains. Her mother was a Neanderthal and her father was a Denisovan, making her a first-generation hybrid of human species.

Researchers from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and elsewhere uncovered the unique specimen among a trove of bones excavated from Denisova Cave in Siberia. The cave is the only place where archaeologists have found bones belonging to the Denisovans, a species of ancient human who we still know very little about. Thousands of bones have been retrieved from the cave since digging began on 2005, yet many remain unanalyzed. Researchers are working through the backlog now to uncover more information about those who inhabited the cave over the course of tens of thousands of years.

Stranger Species

 View of the valley from above the Denisova Cave archaeological site, Russia. (Credit: Bence Viola, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology)

View of the valley from above the Denisova Cave archaeological site, Russia. (Credit: Bence Viola, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology)

One of those cave inhabitants was a girl who died around the age of 13 more than 50,000 years ago. Today, we know her from just a fragment of one of her long bones, a specimen called “Denisova 11.” Researchers at Max Planck extracted samples from the bone to retrieve genetic information. Their first attempt pegged her as being pure Neanderthal, based on data from her mitchondrial DNA, inherited only from the mother. But the sample was so well-preserved, they decided to conduct more in-depth tests of her whole genome.

“And we were very surprised when the data started coming in to see that it was actually equally close to both Neanderthals and Denisovans,” says Svante Pääbo, a co-author of the paper and director of the department of genetics at Max Planck. “I thought they had screwed up something.”

But, as they dug further, they found that the girl, let’s call her “11” for short, truly did have equal amounts of both Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA.

“You can see that in each chromosome pair, one of the partners comes exclusively from the Neanderthal and the other from something that’s exclusively Denisovan,” Pääbo says.

And, because all of the genes passed on through mitochondrial DNA were Neanderthal, 11’s mother must have belonged to that species, making her father a Denisovan.

Hybrid Hominin

The find is direct proof of interbreeding between human species, though it doesn’t come as a surprise. Scientists have already sequenced the genomes of both Neanderthals and Denisovans, and knew that the two had mated before. How often this happened, and where, though, are unclear.

The find suggests that the two species were inhabiting the Altai mountains 50,000 years ago when 11 died, and were obviously in some sort of contact with each other. Denisova cave has yielded bones from both Neanderthals and Denisovans as well as artifacts made by H. sapiens, though it’s not yet evident that all three species were living near the cave at the same time.

Neanderthals and Denisovans are thought to have split from each other around 390,000 years ago, long before 11’s birth. They separated from humans even farther back, around 550,000 years ago. Interbreeding occurred between all three species, though, and today, around one to two percent of non-Africans’ DNA is from Neanderthals. Denisovan DNA shows up only in those of southeast Asian and Pacific Islander descent, where it can be as high as six percent.

We know that Neanderthals ranged across Europe and Asia until their disappearance about 40,000 years ago – a distribution that overlaps broadly with Homo sapiens‘ forays into the region. Where Denisovans lived is more difficult to say, as we’ve only found their remains in a single location in south-central Russia.

Archaeologists working in the in the East Chamber of Denisova Cave, Russia. (Credit: IAET SB RAS, Sergei Zelensky)

Archaeologists working in the in the East Chamber of Denisova Cave, Russia. (Credit: IAET SB RAS, Sergei Zelensky)

Digging further into 11’s genome, the researchers found that her Denisovan father also possessed Neanderthal traits, indicating that he too could count a Neanderthal in his family tree. It’s hard evidence that interbreeding occurred on at least two occasions, packed into a single find. Her mother’s genetic history yielded insights as well — she turned out to be more closely related to Neanderthals living in Western Europe than to another Neanderthal found at Denisova cave.

Though it’s not clear whether her descendants moved to the Altai from Europe or the other way around, it’s an indication that Neanderthals were migrating across Eurasia long before they disappeared.

And while many researchers refer to Neanderthals and Denisovans as species separate from us and each other, the term may not be quite accurate. Pääbo says that he and his team avoid the term altogether, because there’s no clear definition of what makes a species. After all, one of the most common definitions holds that different species cannot produce viable offspring together, something that’s clearly not true. Pääbo and his team use the term “group” in their paper, a term that avoids the ideological baggage of the species debate.

“I think that there will never be an answer to that because people will always have different opinions on what is a species,” he says. “I think it’s not really an interesting question to discuss.”

Interbreeding Not Unusual

What the new work doesn’t give us, unfortunately, is much in the way of new information about the Denisovans. The few bones we have are fragmentary and tell us little about what they actually looked like. Of greatest interest to archaeologists would be a Denisovan skull – researchers have never found one. Analyzing the skull morphology could offer important data on what a Denisovan brain may have looked like. Also unknown is how well hybrid individuals like 11 fared.

Though the find, and the new genetic information inside, is important, it’s just another indication that interbreeding between members of our genus was likely quite common. Finding evidence of cross-species mating in one out of three Denisovan individuals unearthed so far can’t be a coincidence, Pääbo thinks.

“You can’t be that lucky,” he says. “When these groups met, they interbred quite freely with one another.”

That extends to the ancestors of modern humans, as well. Though we haven’t found such first generation specimens, there are surely individuals like 11 whose parents were H. sapiens and Neanderthal or Denisovan.

The story of how humans, and H. sapiens in particular, spread across the globe is being constantly revised as new finds pour in, but it’s clear that it’s much more complicated than a simplistic tale of modern humans edging out other more ancient species. We crossed paths, and interacted with, other species similar to us many times during our history.

The researchers published their work Wednesday in Nature.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World
MORE ABOUT: anthropology
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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

    Great Apes breed like citrus. If it fits it works.

    • Kamran Rowshandel

      Obviously, this man’s mom breeds with him often

      • Richard Schachair

        Ouch!

    • Odin Matanguihan

      hey AI. How come you’re trying to pass the Turing test at every topic in this site?

  • Odin Matanguihan

    ” that interbreeding between members of our genus was likely quite common.”

    Not surprising, considering that some of us want to breed with goats, sheep, pig, even a rubber boat.

    • Linda Schertz

      LOL

    • temporary guest

      LOL … Yeah … and just yesterday I heard about feminists having sex with trees. Beats me how they to that, but I do know I can’t compete with that kind of wood. Come to think of it, I guess that maybe female neanderthals would be preferable to today’s feminists.

      • Spicy_McHaggis

        Sounds like someone can’t get laid so it’s the ‘feminists’ fault.

        • temporary guest

          LOL … to say something like that, you must be one of those “male feminists” I hear so much about. … Uh … “Spicy”??? Is that what your mamma named you, or did you pick that handle yourself?

          I had a real, genuine laugh. thanks, Mr. spicy.

          • Spicy_McHaggis

            Still frustrated, I see. Go take a cold shower and stop blaming women for your failures.

          • temporary guest

            Still talking like an angry, judgemental, disillusioned housewife, huh? Ger over yourself, Spicy.

            I mean, you must be an angry, judgemental, disillusioned housewife to be spouting the kind of obvious man-hating crap you’re shooting out about someone you wouldn’t know from Adam if we both sat down next to your angry, disillusioned, judgemental a** in a restaurant. Then again, I suppose it’s possible you just need to grow the hell up.

            Any way, I’ve got much better things to do with my time than argue with either stupid women, or men who gripe, bitch, complain, whine, accuse and argue like stupid women.

            You’re blocked

          • Spicy_McHaggis

            “you’re blocked”…..ahh, quite the mature debater.
            You really don’t seem to have better things to do as you keep getting triggered enough to respond.
            I’m not judging anyone, on the contrary, you are by claiming feminist are to blame for some of you own shortcomings.
            Oh well, one day you may mature and see the light.

          • Hunni Sem

            Let the freedom of speech ring, but let us not forget that at some point it bothers others, and at other points it brings up useless discussions like this ones: where one person pleads to the other to shut up, and the other keeps the stupidity until the chat becomes an ignorant cycle for men like us with noting else to do.

          • Spicy_McHaggis

            Great point but for someone who lumps “feminists” into the discussion human relatives, he sure can’t take another point of view. Seems like anyone who is willing to insult others had better expect some kickback.

    • Harley Ulric

      As they are “cousins” in evolution the Genetic basis is similar.

  • Cordina G de G

    2.3 % Neanderthaler and and 2.1% Denisovan that’s me I believe most of us have this?

  • Joseph Turiak

    The majority of humanity will always believe that an old man with a beard wearing a night gown created them.

    • temporary guest

      I think you’ve been listening to the wrong “majority”. God is a spirit, not an old man. But, I suppose that like fish who don’t believe in life on dry land, there will always be those who never question the “old man in the sky” proclamations of fish minded “majorities”. After all, if you’re already convinced that you know everything, what is there to question?

  • Peter Lewicke
  • Peter Lewicke

    Apparently the writer of this article forgot the definition of species “a group of living organisms consisting of similar individuals capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring.” Since the mixed genes are still in the gene pool, they must have been of the same species.

  • Creationhasevidence

    More evidence Neanderthals and Denisovans were human beings, not a link to human beings. Throw away your predetermined religion of evolution and look at what your scientific discoveries are telling you, we were created by God.

    • AlDavisJr

      Throw away your bible and educate yourself about evolution.

      • Creationhasevidence

        I have been educated in the study of evolution, and found that there is zero scientific evidence for the THEORY OF EVOLUTION, all of the evidence point toward a designer. If there’s a building, there must be a builder, if ther’s a painting, there must be a painter, if there’s a creation, then, there MUST be a Creator. If you’vyou’ve evolved from primordial soup then how can you trust that the chemical process to form your brain did not create a mutation (which is how scientists explain our advancement in evolution), so how can you trust that your brain is functioning as designed if the chemical process is wrong. I believe; In the beginning God, you believe; In the beginning we came from a rock……look at your theory with more scrutiny.

        • Tom Loughridge

          As a Christian with a very strong faith and a science teacher whose first year in a classroom was 1957, I think you both need to move your beliefs more toward the middle ground. One does not need to be an atheist to trust years of scientific research and knowledge nor does one need to be a creationist to have a strong belief in God and His Son, Jesus. Faith and science are not only compatible but actually complement each other. Scientist, study your bible a little more. Religionist, pay more attention to the real world that God created. God doesn’t work things out in the same way we do. He tells us that in several biblical passages. The evidence actually points to evolution as one of the tools of God both scientifically and biblical.

          • Creationhasevidence

            As a Christian, God tells us in Genesis Chapter 1 how He created everything, Genesis doesn’t agree with the atheist evolutionary theory, it is backwards from it, and the evidence actually points to the way God described it in Genesis, and reinstates it to us through out the Bible. Christians, do not compromise the word of God, if you compromise in chapter 1, you might as well throw out your Bibles, ask God to reveal His word to you, and you’ll flee from modern scientists and their lies. Faith and Science do complement each other, If a scientist has his Faith in atheism, he’ll never see God in the scientific evidence.

          • PhishPhace

            Another one blinded by the book. Don’t waste your time even debating with this person. It does’t matter how much evidence there is to the contrary; if it does not align with the book then it is, at best, wrong, and at worse an evil work of Satan. A very narrow and distorted view of the universe; how sad.

          • Creationhasevidence

            What Evidence? Every piece of evidence points toward a creation, not chance and time, it’s not a question of science vs religion. It is a question of religion vs religion. You believe nothing created everything, which is scientifically impossible, and I believe God created everything, with proof of scientific evidence pointing to a creator, which one of us is blinded??? I believe we came from God, you believe we came from a rock????? So silly.

          • Richard Schachair

            Well said!

    • temporary guest

      I believe evolutionists quit talking about the proverbial “missing link” years ago when they realized that it’s most prevalent attribute is that it is still missing.

    • Richard Schachair

      Where’s the scientific proof of God my friend?

      • Creationhasevidence

        Nice straw man argument.
        The fact that you exist is evidence of a Creator.
        Since your scientific evidence does not prove evolution took place, you assume I have to prove, scientifically, that God exists. God exists, because we exist. The evidence for God is all around you, He declared it in his handiwork.

  • krell51

    Just proves that for men, even 50,000 years ago the phrase “any port in a storm” holds true!

  • Joel Lindstrom

    The classification of species is totally wrong. Different breeds can mate within species. Like dogs are classified into breeds so should humans.
    Obviously mating occurred. Must be the same species.

  • Harley Ulric

    Is not it. As they are “cousins” in evolution the Genetic basis is similar.

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