Perhaps now the myth of brutish Neanderthals will finally be laid to rest. Thanks to the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, we have a nuclear genome of H. neanderthalensis; in fact a composite based on bones of three individuals from a Croatian cave. Carbon-14 dating shows that the bones are between 44 to 38 ka old: about the time of the first arrival of fully modern humans in Europe. Only ten years on from the publication of the first human genome, the team inspired by Svante Paabo (actually the last of 56 authors, but the founder of the lab and its peerless facilities) has engineered a scientific triumph that matches the achievement in 2000 led by James D. Watson at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and Craig Ventner of Celera Corporation (Green, R.E. and 55 others 2010. A draft sequence of the Neandertal genome. Science, v. 328, p. 710-722). Let’s be frank, to get to know another member of our genus nearly as well as ourselves, albeit in terms of A, C, T and G the nucleotide bases of DNA adenine, cytosine, thymine and guanine, puts the rest of science in somewhat distant perspective. It forms the basis for learning what, if anything, sets us apart from earlier humans, what we share with them and potentially how we came to be what we are.
Apart from a geologically brief period since 80 ka when fully modern humans and Neanderthals occupied the Mediterranean fringe of the Middle East, both had probably developed separately since forebears of the Neanderthals left Africa to arrive in Europe about 400 ka ago while ours seem to have stayed in Africa. Earlier genetic results show that both species shared a common ancestor, perhaps H. heidelburgensis. From the time when the main wave of African people ventured into Arabia, Asia and Europe, perhaps around 60 to 75 ka, chances are that encounters were inevitable, until the last Neanderthals met a lonely end on the Rock of Gibraltar around 25 ka. Variations in mtDNA data seem to show that the two species have little genetic overlap, but mitochondria hold only a small part of DNA. The 4 billion base pairs of nuclear DNA occur in thousands of segments that have evolved independently, and in us continue to do so: a source for very detailed comparisons indeed. The issue centres on how alike and how different such segments are, when compared with DNA from different modern human genomes. If similarities and contrasts are more or less the same in comparison with all modern human groups, then it is most likely that although Neanderthals and modern humans did meet they did not exchange genetic materials; i.e. they did not mate successfully. The new data show beyond much doubt that Neanderthals were more similar genetically to modern Europeans and Asians than they were to modern Africans. There was successful mating and the progeny entered the fully modern human population of Asia and Europe, to the extent that Asians and Europeans host 1 to 4% of Neanderthal ancestry.
The most famous human in genetics, simply because he arranged sequencing of his own DNA, which is the comparator used by the team, Craig Ventner can be highly confident that he contains segments of Neanderthal DNA. We must await his reaction in a mood of solemn gaiety, and react he most probably will: I did and I feel quite cheerfully proud. Interestingly, Neanderthals are as closely related to individuals from New Guinea and China as they are to a French person. Such uniformity among non-Africans suggests that the gene exchange (viz. sexual intercourse) took place shortly after fully modern humans migrated out of Africa. But who did what to whom under which circumstances will remain a mystery, although it appears that the gene flow was from Neanderthal to human and not vice versa. With a small colonising group of Africans, there need not have been a great deal of ‘sharing’ of bodily fluids for introduced genes to ‘surf’ throughout succeeding generations to reach us. So what is it that we lucky ones share with Neanderthals? This is a topic fraught with possible overtones, though they probably will not suit the outlook of those with a prejudiced racist tendency. The results suggest 15 genomic regions that include those involved in energy metabolism, possibly associated with type 2 diabetes; cranial shape and cognitive abilities, perhaps linked to Down’s syndrome, autism and schizophrenia; wound healing; skin, sweat glands, hair follicles and skin pigmentation; and barrel chests. Some may have been beneficial others not, but they have been retained through thousands of fully modern human generations.
Analyses of the genome are at a very early stage, but the sequencing technique and associated checks for contamination with modern DNA are sufficiently advanced that other Neanderthal remains and bones of ancient Europeans and Asians will surely add to the excitement. Just how far back analyses can be pushed remains to be seen, but it is now quite clear that human evolution was a great deal more complicated than the simple Out-of-Africa model that is currently almost universally accepted.
See also: Gibbons, A. 2010. Close encounters of the prehistoric kind. Science, p. 680-684.
Other rich hominin pickings
March and April 2010 were indeed exciting times for palaeoanthropology, with publication of evidence for two new species of hominin. Cave systems in the Archaean limestones of north-eastern South Africa have yielded so many fossil remains related to human evolution that the area liberally dotted with them has UN World Heritage status. The caves formed beneath a now-eroded plateau, and are so rich because creatures fell into surface sink holes, died and remained little disturbed by scavengers. The latest find has an unusual story behind it (Balter, M. 2010. Candidate human ancestor from South Africa sparks praise and debate. Science. v. 328, p. 154-155). The cave system was first explored by lime-kiln workers around the early 1900s, who brought out blocks which litter the ground around cave mouths. It was in one of these chunks that the 9-year old son of a South African palaeoanthropologist found bone that turned out to be a hominin lower jaw. Sadly, young Matthew Berger had to be excluded from the list of authors of the two important papers that ensued from his find, because of Science magazine’s rules for authorship (Berger, L.R. et al. 2010. Australopithecus sediba: a new species of Homo-like australopith from South Africa. Science, v. 328, p.195-204. Dirks, P.H.G.M. and 11 others 2010. Geological setting and age of Australopithecus sediba from southern Africa. Science, v. 328, p.205-208). Nevertheless, he can be well satisfied as the full set of bones points to a new species, one that may arguably share more features with Homo species of about the same antiquity than any other australopithecine. Being coeval with H habilis, A. sediba cannot be ancestral but may have shared a common ancestor with the earliest known human species. Fitting the new find into the long and variously disputed cladistics of hominins will run and run, but at least it should re-emphasise one thing: there were several cohabiting hominin species in Africa around 2 Ma ago.
Such a multiplicity of co-existing hominins seemingly continued until quite recent times, as a remarkable piece of evidence from a Siberian cave has confirmed. Between about 30 to 48 ka, the cave was a popular venue for Neanderthal hunters who left tools and bones of their prey. Russian archaeologists combed the cave deposits for human remains but came up with only fragmentary finds of bone. One of these was the tip of someone’s little finger. The possibility of obtaining genetic material from relatively young finds in caves that have remained cold and untouched encouraged the excavators to handle their finds carefully. It’s just as well they did for the results from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig Germany, famous for its work on Neanderthal DNA, held a surprise. The finger’s owner was neither a Neanderthal nor a fully modern human (Krause, J. et al. 2010. The complete mitochondrial DNA genome of an unknown hominin from Southern Siberia. Nature, v. 464, p. 894-897). The evidence for this is overwhelming. Fully modern human mtDNA ranges from 0 to about 100 differences in nucleotide positions, the difference between human and Nenaderthal mtDNA is just over 200, but the pinky bone revealed almost 400 differences from ourselves and almost as many from Neanderthals. Such differences suggest that ancestors of the unknown Siberian separated from the line of descent to Neanderthals and modern humans about a million years ago. Yet all three were in Asia a mere 40 ka ago. Add to that the diminutive H. floresiensis who survived to cohabit Flores with modern humans until about 9ka, and some evidence that H. erectus was also around in Java up to 25 ka, gives possibly 5 species of human in Asia who may have met and goodness knows what else.
See also: Dalton, R. 2010. Fossil finger points to new human species. Nature, v. 464, p. 472-473.