Ancient Humans Mated With a Mysterious Species Called the Denisovans

Friday, 16 March 2018 - 12:09PM
Friday, 16 March 2018 - 12:09PM
Ancient Humans Mated With a Mysterious Species Called the Denisovans
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Image Credit: Vincent Lit/Flickr: CC BY 2.0
No one's sure what happened to the Neanderthals, but we are pretty sure that our ancestors interbred with them at some point... And it's not the only time ancient humans mated with another species. According to new research, humans bred at least twice with a "sister species" to the Neanderthals called the Denisovans.

We don't know much about the Denisovans, apart from a finger bone found in a Siberian cave. Before sequencing the DNA from that bone, anthropologists didn't even know they existed. When the genetic material didn't match any known species, it became clear they had found something new. Later it was discovered that certain Australasian people, especially those in Papua New Guinea, had about 5% Denisovan DNA – meaning that their human ancestors had bred with this mysterious species at some point. It was unclear how widespread the Denisovans were, but new research from the University of Washington suggests that they may have lived across much of East Asia.

The research, published in the scientific journal Cell, surveyed the DNA of 5,600 people across Europe, Asia, America, and Oceania. Scientists found that Han Chinese, Chinese Dai, and the Japanese had much higher percentages of Denisovan genetic material, which is characterized by being "mutation-rich." Interestingly, the DNA collected from the subjects in this study differs from the subjects in Papua New Guinea. Although the Papua New Guineans seem to have more Denisovan ancestry, the subjects surveyed by the University of Washington have DNA that more closely resembles the sample found in Siberia. All in all, we now have two recorded instances where groups of humans interbred with Denisovans.

Sharon Browning, one of the authors of the new paper, says "Our research demonstrates that there were at least two distinct populations of Denisovans living in Asia, probably somewhat geographically distant...The fact that two episodes of interbreeding occurred suggests that at least in some instances, Denisovans and modern humans were willing to live in proximity and interact."

Hopefully, we'll know what the Denisovans looked like someday. Until then, human history just keeps getting more interesting. Perhaps we could take a page out of our ancestors' book and learn how to get along with people different – but not so fundamentally different – from ourselves.

Image Credit: Vincent Lit/Flickr: CC BY 2.0
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