Ancient hybrid girl provides a connection between Neanderthals and Denisovans

According to latest findings, DNA of a girl shows for the first time the intermingling of species. Her father seems to be Denisovan while her mother was probably of Neanderthal origin.

The findings of the new dig were published in the latest issue of the journal Nature. The researchers explain that Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) have been known to live across Europe and Western Asia around 30,000 years ago.

Two ancient prehistoric man and female Neanderthal. Image Credit: frantic00 / Shutterstock
Two ancient prehistoric man and female Neanderthal. Image Credit: frantic00 / Shutterstock

They were known to be tool-makers and hunters. They lived through three glacial periods and could survive several ecological zones. Denisovans (Homo sapiens denisova) are another species that the researchers know little about. Their ancestry and DNA has been pieced together from tiny bone fragments in the Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains of Siberia.

While scientists have pieced together how Neanderthals look like, they are yet to predict how Desinovans looked like. Both Neanderthals and Denisovans are known to have had a common ancestor around 40,000 years ago from where they have evolved into different species.

What is remarkable about this finding is the combination of DNA from these two humanoid species. The child (called Denisovan-11) whose bones and remains have been found in the Denisova cave is supposed to be around 13 years when she died. A 2.5 cm piece of bone from her was found and carbon dating showed that she died over 50,000 years ago. A small part of her bone was taken and DNA was extracted from it to be sequenced.

This DNA sequence that was obtained was compared with the DNA sequences of modern man, Neanderthals and Denisovans. Her genetic makeup pointed towards the fact that she had a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father. She could have been a first generation Neanderthal-Denisovan woman, speculate researchers, calling her “Neandersovan”. Viviane Slon, post-doctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA) in Leipzig, Germany said that it has been known that Neanderthals and Denisovans could have had babies together. This was a lucky break that the team finally stumbled upon an actual offspring from the two species she said. Svante Pääbo, director of MPI-EVA also speculated that these two species may have had ample opportunities to meet and mate.

Researchers explained that both of these species lived in Europe and Asia until around 40,000 years back when they were slowly replaced by modern man or Homo sapiens. Researchers have long speculated that there could have been an intermingling of species before that and probably cross breeding that gave rise to hybrids. In fact DNA from non-African individuals at present contains 2 to 4 percent Neanderthal DNA while DNA from the ancestors of the present day Asians and Oceanians contains a fair bit of Denisovan DNA.

Another speculation that comes from the findings of this girl is that the Neanderthals moved between Western Europe and the East. Her DNA revealed that she could have been related to a Neanderthal who had come from Western Europe rather than locally living. Till date most of the archaeological findings showed that Neanderthals did not move around much and remained within their territories. Findings from the Denisova – 11 shows that Neanderthals undertook long journeys from west to east the reasons for which are unclear.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

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Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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