Republication from Nature

Genome of 40,000-year-old jaw from Romania suggests humans interbred with Neanderthals in Europe.

This 40,000–year–old human mandible, found in a Romanian cave, has a mix of human and Neanderthal traits; genetic analysis suggests the individual had a close Neanderthal ancestor 4–6 generations back.

One of Europe’s earliest known humans had a close Neanderthal ancestor: perhaps as close as a great-great-grandparent.

The finding, announced on 8 May at the Biology of Genomes meeting in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, questions the idea that humans and Neanderthals interbred only in the Middle East, more than 50,000 years ago.

Qiaomei Fu, a palaeogenomicist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, told the meeting how she and her colleagues had sequenced DNA from a 40,000-year-old jawbone that represents some of the earliest modern-human remains in Europe. They estimate that 5–11% of the bone’s genome is Neanderthal, including large chunks of several chromosomes. (The genetic analysis also shows that the individual was a man). By analysing how lengths of DNA inherited from any one ancestor shorten with each generation, the team estimated that the man had a Neanderthal ancestor in the previous 4–6 generations. (The researchers declined to comment on the work because it has not yet been published in a journal).

Mixed messages

The DNA evidence confirms earlier arguments that the jaw and its attached teeth possessed a mix of human and Neanderthal traits. Its wisdom teeth, for example, are much larger than those of Homo sapiens. “I guess it’s reassuring at some level that there’s correspondence between what the anatomy is telling us and what the genes are telling us,” says Erik Trinkaus, a palaeoanthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, who has analysed the mandible and its attached teeth1, and has read Fu and her team’s work.

The jawbone was found among bear remains in a Romanian cave called Peștera cu Oase (meaning ‘cave with bones’) that was discovered by a group of speleologists in 2002. “The only access to the cave is by scuba-diving through an underground river,” says Trinkaus.

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