Scientists learn about Neanderthals via a toe bone from 50,000 years ago

What can we say about people who lived 50,000 years ago? Much more than just years ago, thanks to the growing body of knowledge from the collection and modern-day testing of DNA (or deoxyribonucleic acid, the encoded genetic instructions found in all known living organisms).

Strong inbreeding characterizes Neanderthal woman

In recent research on DNA from the toe bone of a Neanderthal woman (found in Siberia in a cave in the Altai Mountains) by a team sequencing the genome from the DNA, it was discovered that there was extreme inbreeding. In this particular case, led by a Population Geneticist from the University of California, Dr. Montgomery Slatkin, the woman’s parents were likely half-siblings who shared the same mother. If that wasn’t the case, they could have been uncle and niece or aunt and nephew…or possibly even grandparent and grandchild, according to the Daily Mail newspaper. They may have also been double first cousins, suggests The Independent.

The results of the study appear in the journal Nature and, in some regards, were not all that surprising to scientists. For example, Neanderthal population groups were likely very small, and they inbred with related groups, such as Denisovans (a sister group from Siberia), as well as early humans. They lived alongside modern man’s earliest ancestors, who roamed the lands of Europe and Asia.

However, the level of interbreeding found in this Neanderthal woman was extreme. According to a leading expert in human origins with the London Natural History Museum, despite the wandering nature of the Neanderthals, the genomic diversity of the woman studied “was less than that found in a small population of hunter-gatherers living in the Amazonian rainforest today,” an exclusive group by anyone’s standard.

Comparing Neanderthals with modern man

The Neanderthal population had some things in common with early humans (the use of tools and weapons, for example), but their social structure was weak, which may account for their demise more than 30,000 years ago. If all this seems very remote to modern life and the humans who inhabit the planet today, think again. It’s a small world, as they say.

Most humans alive today still carry some ancient Neanderthal genes. According to the Daily Mail:

“between 1.5 percent and 2.1 percent of the genomes of modern non-African people can be traced to Neanderthals.”

This was a point of some contention among scientists for some years (who disagreed about the link to modern day humans), but this study shows decisively that Neanderthals and modern humans interbred.

At the same time, the study also found “at least 87 specific genes” in modern humans did not exist in Neanderthals. Just why is this important? In part, because it may someday help explain why Neanderthals died out while our modern ancestors survived.

According to Dr. Svante Paabo from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, within these genes that separate us from Neanderthals “may hide some of the things that made the enormous expansion of human populations and human culture and technology in the last 10,000 years possible.”