Our patchwork origins – my new feature in New Scientist

By Ed Yong | July 29, 2011 5:55 am

The sequencing of the complete Neanderthals genome was one of the highlights of last year, not just because of the technical achievement involved, but because it confirmed something extraordinary about our own ancestry. It showed that everyone outside of Africa can trace around 1-4% of their genes to Neanderthals. Our ancestors must have bred with Neanderthals on their way out of Africa.

Then, later in the year, the same team revealed another ancient genome. This one belonged to a group of people called Denisovans, known only from a single finger bone and a tooth. They too had left genetic heirlooms in modern people. Around 5-7% of the genes of Melanesians (people from Papua New Guinea, Fiji and other Pacific islands) came from the Denisovans.

In this week’s issue of New Scientist, I’ve got a feature that explores our patchwork origins. I looked at what these ancient genomes mean for our understanding of human evolution. I also considered some intriguing questions like whether other Denisovan fossils have already been found, whether this human pattern is applicable to other animal species, how much you can tell from modern genomes alone, and whether we’ll ever get DNA from the ‘hobbits’ of Flores. Do check it out – it contains some great viewpoints from Svante Paabo and David Reich, two of the scientists who spearheaded the sequencing efforts, along with Chris Stringer, Milford Wolpoff, Alan Cooper and John Hawks.

The magazine’s on the stands for the next week, or you can read the piece online if you have a New Scientist subscription to read the full thing. If  get round to it, I’ll try and stick up some of the transcripts from the interviews that I did for the piece. There’s some great stuff there.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human evolution

Comments (7)

  1. Matthew Cobb

    I’m afraid I don’t normally buy NS, but for this I will most definitely make an exception! Really looking forward to reading it, and shamelessly pillaging it for my First Year lectures in the autumn.

  2. For the readers: you can also buy the digital edition which is cheaper. Or you can even buy the latest issue for few dollars/euros.

  3. The question of what being human actually means is an intriguing one. So much work done trying to distinguish us from other animals, and yet we are not, ourselves, a single-origin species.
    I have begun speculating that perhaps the truly human trait is that of denialism, and by extension, of pretending what we want is what is real. And yet, watching videos of animals at play — are they imagining they are hunting, or just acting out innate behaviors? It often looks like the former.
    I love your site — you offer an amazing variety of observations and ideas.

  4. Thanks Margaret. Although, humans are a “single-origin species”. We share a common ancestor with all those other hominin groups whose DNA have ended up in our genome. Think of a tree trunk diverging into several branches, some of which sent twigs over to meet ours.

  5. I was using species to differentiate between the groups of hominids, but perhaps it wasn’t the best term. Wikipedia says the human taxonomy remains debatable.
    At any rate, I quite like your friendly twigs analogy.

  6. Peter Clemerson

    The graphic “All mixed up” in the printed edition is a first class teaching resource. Accessing the NS site as a subscriber, I found it there only as a thumbnail. It is unreadable when expanded to a decent size. Could you possibly email me a full version and/or place it on your blog and/or provide a web address at which a full version could be found, together with credits for whoever compiled it?


    Peter Clemerson


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