Clues About Neanderthals From A Very Old Toe


Scientists reported this week that modern humans and Neanderthals may have met each other much earlier than previously thought!  Neanderthals are an ancient species of humans that disappeared about 40,000 years ago; however, their genes have been found in many modern humans. In fact, your genes could contain between 1.5-4% Neanderthal DNA! While it is relatively common to find modern humans with traces of Neanderthal DNA, this is the first time ever that researchers have found evidence of a Neanderthal with modern human DNA.

The scientists uncovered a toe bone in a cave in the Altai Mountains in Russia that contained the well-preserved DNA of a 50,000 year old Neanderthal woman. They estimate that between 1 and 7.1% of this DNA showed traces of modern human genes. They know that the Altai mountain Neanderthals split from their European relatives between 167,000 and 68,000 years ago, and that this woman’s ancestors must have come in contact with modern humans after that split. The scientists are estimating that this contact occurred about 110,000 years ago, around 50,000 years earlier than previously hypothesized.

If you are having trouble wrapping your head around this complicated family tree like I am, just picture Eep and Guy from the movie “The Croods.” Now imagine that Eep (the Neanderthal) and Guy (the modern human) stayed together after all their adventures and had children. These children then went off to live in the Altai mountains with their Neanderthal relatives, and had families and children of their own. Then thousands of years later archaeologists uncovered the remains of one of Eep and Guy’s great great great great great grandchildren. Their bones would contain traces of the modern human DNA from their ancestor Guy, even though the majority of their genetic makeup would be Neanderthal!

It is fun to think about the long and complex history that created the DNA you and I have today. So when you are discussing your ancestors at your next family reunion, don’t forget to include your Neanderthal relatives!

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Feb 19, 2016

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