There’s a new paper out, Partial genetic turnover in neandertals: continuity in the east and population replacement in the west. The primary results are above. Basically, using 13 mtDNA samples the authors conclude that it looks as if there was a founder effect for Neanderthals in Western Europe ~50 K years ago, generating a very homogenized genetic background for this particular population before the arrival of modern humans. Perhaps it’s just me, but press releases with headlines such as “European Neanderthals Were On the Verge of Extinction Even Before the Arrival of Modern Humans” strike me as hyperbolic. I’m also confused by quotes like the one below:
“The fact that Neanderthals in Europe were nearly extinct, but then recovered, and that all this took place long before they came into contact with modern humans came as a complete surprise to us. This indicates that the Neanderthals may have been more sensitive to the dramatic climate changes that took place in the last Ice Age than was previously thought”, says Love Dalén, associate professor at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm.
There are several points that come to mind, from the specific to the general. First, from what I gather Neandertals were actually less expansive in pushing the northern limits of the hominin range than the modern humans who succeeded them. From this many suppose that despite the biological cold-adapted nature of the Neandertal physique they lacked the cultural plasticity to push the range envelope (e.g., modern humans pushed into Siberia, allowing them to traverse Beringia). One might infer from this that Neandertals were more, not less, sensitive to climate changes than later human populations. Second, there is the fact that as the northern hominin lineage one would expect that Neandertals would be subject to more population size variations than their cousins to the south during the Pleistocene due to cyclical climate change. This is not just an issue just for Neandertals, but for slow breeding or moving organisms generally. The modern human bottleneck is in some ways more surprising, because modern humans derive from a warmer climate. Finally, there is the “big picture” issue that though we throw these northern adapted hominins into the pot as “Neandertals,” one shouldn’t be surprised if they exhibit structure and variation. Non-African humans have diversified over less than 100,000 years, at a minimum the lineages which we label Neandertals were resident from Western Europe to Central Asia for ~200,000 years. Wouldn’t one expect a lot of natural history over this time?
Presumably the authors focused on mtDNA because this is copious relative to autosomal DNA, making ancient DNA extraction easier. I’m a bit curious how it aligns with the inference from the Denisovan paper that Vindija and Mezmaiskaya Neandertals both went through a population bottleneck using autosomal markers. The dates from the paper’s supplements are not clear to me, though it seems possible that they may have sampled individuals where the Vindija population may have been post-resettlement. At some point presumably we may be able to get a better sense of the source population of the Neandertal admixture into our own genomes if the genomic history of this population is well characterized.