Professor Svante Paabo, director of genetics at the renowned Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, will shortly publish his analysis of the entire Neanderthal genome, using DNA retrieved from fossils. He aims to compare it with the genomes of modern humans and chimpanzees to work out the ancestry of all three species.
Paabo recently told a conference at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory near New York that he was now sure the two species had had sex – but a question remained about how “productive” it had been.
“What I’m really interested in is, did we have children back then and did those children contribute to our variation today?” he said. “I’m sure that they had sex, but did it give offspring that contributed to us? We will be able to answer quite rigorously with the new [Neanderthal genome] sequence.”
The way Paabo is couching it, what he has found then seems likely to be evidence that humans who had just expanded Out of Africa contributed to the genomes of Neandertals. In other words, modern human introgression into Neandertals. Of course if the gene flow was from modern human to Neandertals exclusively, then it would be an evolutionary dead end since that lineage went extinct.
In any case, for several decades some fossil-based paleoanthropologists have been claiming that there are “intermediate” individuals in the record which indicate modern human-Neandertal hybridization. Most prominently Erik Trinkaus. If Paabo’s finding becomes more solid, then it seems time to update the probabilities on these sorts of claims based purely on morphology.
Related: Neandertal introgression.