For 20 years, we have known the full human genome. For 10 years the full content of Neanderthal DNA has been available, courtesy of Svante Paabo’s team at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. The two were compared and suddenly every living person with a Eurasian ancestry learned that they had significant and functional bits of Neanderthal in their make-up: some beneficial, some not so good (see: Yes, it seems that they did… in Human evolution and migrations, May 2010). Then the Denisovan connection emerged for East Asians and original populations of Australasia. Africans seemed not to share such a privilege. But now it seems that they do, but as a result of a somewhat tortuous route (Lu Chen et al. 2020. Identifying and interpreting apparent Neanderthal ancestry in African individuals. Cell v. 180, p. 1–11; DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2020.01.012).
Lu and colleagues used a new approach to discover that 2500 people from five widespread subpopulations living in Africa carry in their DNA several million base-pairs of Neanderthal origin (about 0.3% of their genomes). This happened in two steps. The most recent resulted when ancient anatomically modern humans (AMH), who carried Neanderthal DNA as a result of repeated interbreeding, migrated back to Africa from Europe about 20 thousand years ago. But the modern Africans’ DNA also suggests that their ancestral Neanderthals had also interbred with a much earlier group of Africans who had left their home continent between 150 to 100 thousand years ago. The Neanderthals already carried sections of that earlier AMH genome. The relationship between modern humans and Neanderthals seems to have been a great deal more complex that previously thought.
The authors conclude, ‘… our data show that out-of-Africa and in-to-Africa dispersals must be accounted for when interpreting archaic hominin ancestry in contemporary human populations. It is notable that Neanderthal sequences have been identified in every contemporary modern human genome analyzed to date. Thus, the legacy of gene flow with Neanderthals likely exists in all modern humans, highlighting our shared history’. Palaeo-geneticists have also shown that a similarly complex social relationship may have characterised Neanderthals and Denisovans, where their ranges overlapped (see Neanderthal Mum meets Denisovan Dad in Human evolution and migrations, August 2018). It would come as no surprise to learn, eventually, that wherever different human groups crossed paths in the more distant past they engaged in similar practices, that is, they behaved humanly. Things have changed a bit in recorded history, when only a single human group has existed; perhaps a consequence of the emergence of what today passes for ‘economy’.
See also: Price, M. 2020. Africans, too, carry Neanderthal genetic legacy. Science, v. 367, p. 497; DOI: 10.1126/science.367.6477.497
Note added 14 February 2020
Several studies of DNA from living Africans have suggested introgression (interbreeding) of an even earlier archaic population into ancient AMH in Africa. Because this cannot be related to any known fossils, such as Homo erectus, such a population is known in palaeogenetic circles as a ‘ghost’. A new paper (Durvasula, A. & Sankararaman, S. 2020. Recovering signals of ghost archaic introgression in
African populations. Science Advances, v. 6, article eaax5097; DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aax5097) suggests that two living groups from West Africa (Yoruba and Mende) derive 2 to 19% of their genetic ancestry from such a ‘ghost’ population. It seems that this archaic group diverged from the descent path of AMH before the split of Neanderthals and AMH. But when the Neanderthal-AMH event took place is uncertain, estimates ranging from 185 to 800 ka. This time uncertainty further obscures the genetic ‘trail’. Curiously, as far as I know non-Africans whose AMH ancestors were of African origin, show no sign of this particular ‘ghost’ among their forebears. That perhaps suggests that few if any West Africans engaged in ‘out-of-Africa’ migrations …