by Michael D. Lemonick
A modern human who lived in what is now Romania between 37,000 and 42,000 years ago had at least one Neanderthal ancestor as little as four generations back—which is to say, a great-great-grandparent.
Scientists have known for at least half a decade that living humans bear traces of Neanderthal blood—or more specifically, Neanderthal DNA. Just when and where our ancestors bred with their now-extinct cousins, however, has been tricky to pin down until now. A new study published Monday in the journal Nature has the highest percentage of Neanderthal DNA of any modern human ever studied.
“I could hardly believe that we were lucky enough to hit upon an individual like this,” says study co-author Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig.
The specimen, known as Oase 1, consists only of a male jawbone, and from the moment it was discovered in 2002 its shape suggested that it might belong to a hybrid between Homo sapiens and Neanderthal. Those claims have remained controversial, but the new analysis lays the controversy to rest. “It’s really stunning,” says Oxford’s Tom Higham, an expert on the Neanderthal-human transition who was not involved in this research.
Part of what stuns Higham is the genomic artistry it took to tease useful genetic information out of the tiny DNA samples lead author Qiaomei Fu of Harvard Medical School and her team were able to extract from the jawbone. “We tried to do this in 2009 and failed,” says Pääbo. His lab has been working since then to improve their techniques, with resounding success.
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