A group of scientists said on Wednesday that a 90,000-year-old bone fragment found in Siberia shows signs of interbreeding between Neanderthals and another prehistoric group of human relatives known as Denisovans.
As Neanderthals migrated eastwards, they may have encountered Denisovans at times, as well as early modern humans. Their research might also shed more light on the sudden disappearance of both relatives of modern humans.
We also know that people from pretty much everywhere but Sub-Sharan Africa have either Neanderthal or Denisovan DNA mixed into their genome; with variations of which and how much varying with geography.
"Genome-wide signatures show that the Denisova 11 individual has a Neanderthal and a Denisovan parent", the team wrote in their report.
Prof Chris Stringer, a human evolution researcher at the Museum, says, 'Neanderthals might have overlapped with the Denisovans across Asia for over 300,000 years, so the fact that their lineages remained largely separate must indicate the existence of some geographic, genetic or behavioural barriers to more widespread mating through that time'. Even though we have seen evidence of the two hominins interbreeding, she is the only known specimen we have who was a first-generation Neanderthal-Denisovan descendant.
The girl's story has been pieced together from a single fragment of bone found in the Denisova cave by Russian archaeologists several years ago. Denisova 3 has also been found to carry a small percentage of Neanderthal ancestry. The researchers found the genome of a Neanderthal in a toe bone dating back 120,000 years.
Tens of thousands of years ago, a Neanderthal woman met and procreated with a Denisovan man in what is now the Altai mountains.
Slon said: "We knew from previous studies that Neanderthals and Denisovans must have occasionally had children together, but I never thought we would be so lucky as to find an actual offspring of the two groups".
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Dr. Svante Paabo, a renowned geneticist, said it is likely that Neanderthals and Denisovans did not have a lot of opportunities to meet because their groups were sprawled in a vast landscape.
"They managed to catch it in the act - it's an unbelievable discovery", said Sharon Browning, a statistical geneticist at the University of Washington who was not involved in the new study.
When the results of the analysis came, it was so surprising that study author and paleogeneticist Viviane Slon assumed she made a mistake, according to National Geographic.
Present-day, non-African humans have a small proportion of their DNA that comes from Neanderthals. 'But when they did, they must have mated frequently - much more so than we previously thought'. We're not quite sure when they faded away, but it is probable that they vanished around the same time the Neanderthals did, 40,000 years ago.
The researchers deduced that the girl's mother was genetically closer to Neanderthals who lived in western Europe than to a Neanderthal individual who lived earlier in Denisova Cave.
Two percent of most European and Asian populations' DNA is Neanderthal, National Geographic's Wei-Haas writes, while four to six percent of modern Melanesians' DNA derives from Denisovans.
Her father's DNA was very similar to that of the original Denisovan found in the cave.