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The Love Story Between Ancient Humans and Neanderthals: When Our DNA Mixed

First Posted: Feb 17, 2016 02:21 PM EST

It turns out that there was an ancient love story between humans and Neanderthals. Using several different methods of DNA analysis, scientists have identified an interbreeding event between Neanderthals and modern humans that occurred 100,000 years ago.

"We knew from Neanderthal DNA found in the genomes of humans outside Africa that Neanderthals and humans have interbred," said Sergi Castellano, one of the researchers, in a news release. "This interbreeding is estimated to have happened less than 65,000 years ago, around the time that modern human populations spread across Eurasia from Africa. We now find evidence for a modern human contribution to the Neanderthal genome. This is likely the result of much earlier interbreeding."

In this latest study, the researchers identified regions of the Altai Neanderthal genome that come from modern humans. More specifically, they were looking for areas where the Neanderthal genome from Siberia had sequences resembling those in humans.

The evidence of gene flow from descendants of modern humans into the Neanderthal genome applies to one specific Neanderthal, whose remains were found in a cave in the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia. While the genomes of other Neanderthals from European caves were sequenced, both lacked DNA derived from modern humans. The researchers also analyzed the genome of another extinct humanoid, a Denisovan, who turned out not to carry any modern human DNA.

The findings don't mean that modern humans never mated with Denisovans or European Neanderthals. However, it does show that the signal seen in the Altai Neanderthal probably occurs from an interbreeding event that occurred after this Neanderthal lineage diverged from its European cousins.

The findings reveal a bit more about the evolution of humans and when they interbred when Neanderthals. This, in turn, reveals a bit more about our own lineage as humans.

The findings are published in the journal Nature.

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