Another piece in the puzzle of modern humans and Neanderthals in Siberia

A map of ancient human remains. The latest Homo sapiens finding was in Ust-Ishim, in western Siberia.

When local historian Nikolay Peristov was searching the banks of the Irtysh River in Ust-Ishim, western Siberia for the mammoth bones, which he uses to make ivory carvings, he found a modern human thigh bone instead.

Radio-carbon dating discovered the bone was around 45,000 years old, making it one of the oldest Homo sapiens fossils ever found.

But there were more surprises when Geneticist Janet Kelso and colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology analysed the Siberian's genome and found it carried a similar level of Neanderthal ancestry to present-day Eurasians.

The researchers concluded that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens ancestors of the Siberian man must have interbred some 7,000 to 13,000 years before he lived – previous estimates of Neanderthal and modern human couplings ranged from 37,000 to 86,000 years ago.

The Max Planck dating suggests a mating of 50,000 to 60,000 years ago – a time which coincides with the migration of modern humans into Europe and possibly into Asia.

So, thanks to the wonders of our new skills in reading ancient DNA, we have another piece in the puzzle of our inter-related history with the doomed Neanderthals that we investigated recently in Cosmos.

As Robin McKie wrote: "Not so long ago, the history of the Neanderthal seemed destined to remain as mysterious and fragmented as the occasional dusty bones dug from caves across Europe. Now Neanderthals’ DNA is not only writing the missing pages of their history, but our own."

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