Mom was Neanderthal: Fossil shows mix of humankind's cousins

Mom was Neanderthal: Fossil shows mix of humankind's cousins

A visitor looks at "El Neandertal Emplumado", a scientifically based impression of the face of a Neanderthal.

Scientists nicknamed the inter-species love child Denny, after her Denisovan father.

"We knew from previous studies that Neandertals and Denisovans must have occasionally had children together", said Viviane Slon, one of the three authors of the study.

In a limestone cave nestled high above the Anuy River in Siberia, scientists have discovered the fossil of an extraordinary human hybrid.

The Denisova cave, in the Altai Mountains of Siberia, where the bone was found, contains some remains attributed to Neanderthals as well as Denisovans.

The two species lived until about 40,000 years ago, Neanderthals in the west and Denisovans in the east, however the cave - and the wider Altai region - are known to have been home to both groups.

The Denisova cave lends its name to the Denisovans, who were first identified by a fingertip found within the cave in 2008. Neanderthals and Denisovans were well adapted to living in Eurasia before modern humans came along and took from them their red hair and ability to survive in the cold.

"Had it happened frequently, we would not have such divergence between the Denisovans and Neanderthal genomes", he said. They don't seem to have moved much beyond relatively constrained territories which provided everything they needed for day-to-day life.

Scientists know quite a bit about Neanderthals, who were not, as commonly portrayed, shorter or stupider than modern humans.

And very few - less than 20 - so-called archaic humans (those belonging to species other than our own, Homo sapiens) have had their genomes sequenced. People with non-African ancestry have fragments of Neanderthal DNA in their genomes, and Denisovan DNA is present in East Asians, Aboriginal Australians and other populations. Subsequent discoveries in the cave confirmed that the Denisovans were a lineage distinct from modern humans.

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Until more fossil evidence is uncovered, the enigmatic Denisovans will continue to remain something of a mystery.

Now earliest fossils of Neanderthals in Europe are dated at 430,000 years ago and thereafter Neanderthals expanded into southwest and Central Asia.

Up to now, their mysterious demise has been blamed on disease, climate change, genocide at the hands of Homo sapiens, or some combination of the above.

However, despite the interbreeding, Neanderthals and Denisovans did not merge into a single group.

"Part of the story of these groups is that they may simply have been absorbed by modern populations", said Paabo.

We've only been genetically sequencing the remains of ancient human remains over the last decade.

Our genetic cousins executed sophisticated hunting strategies in groups; made fires, tools, clothing and jewellery; and buried their dead with symbolic ornaments.

A fragment of one of Denny's long bones was detected in the Siberian cave a few years ago.

Far less is known about Denisovans, but they may have suffered a similar fate. They were then blessed with two baby boys within the first four years of marriage.

Among their genetic legacy to some modern humans is a variant of the gene EPAS1 that makes it easier for the body to access oxygen by regulating the production of haemoglobin, according to a 2014 study.

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