Incredible discovery of cave girl whose parents were different species

Pearl Mccarthy
August 25, 2018

The 2-centimeter fragment contained enough ancient DNA to conclude that it belonged to a woman whose mother was Neanderthal and father Denisovan, the mysterious group of ancient humans discovered in the same cave in 2011.

They lived among and interbred with the ancestors of some modern humans with about 3% to 5% of the DNA of Melanesians and Aboriginal Australians and around 6% in Papuans deriving from Denisovans. The genes of both archaic human species are present in many people today.

Scientists have uncovered the first known child to parents of different species of ancient humans. Although the Denisovans are distinct from Neanderthals and modern humans, researchers know little about their appearance or behavior.

When and where did Neanderthals and Denisovans live?

He said the new findings may change the way researchers look at genetic lineages.

The DNA analysis reveals the girl's mother was more closely related to Neanderthals from western Europe than Neanderthals that occupied the Denisova cave sometime earlier.

Worldwide, fewer than two dozen early human genomes from before 40,000 years ago - Neanderthal, Denisovan, Homo sapiens - have been sequenced, and the chances of stumbling on a half-and-half hybrid seemed vanishingly small. This finding suggests that Neanderthals group migrated to and from western and eastern Eurasia. Strangely, her Neanderthal mother's DNA was closer to that of Neanderthals found living in Croatia thousands of years later than to the other members of her species in the cave.

Denisovans, now extinct, were a group of humans first identified from DNA analysis of a finger bone discovered in the same place a decade ago.

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"We knew from previous studies that Neanderthals and Denisovans must have occasionally had children together", coauthor Viviane Slon, a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, tells the BBC.

Denisova 11, the rather tiresome name the researchers have given the hybrid human, is the fifth Denisovan ever found, which makes the fact she was a hybrid all the more fascinating.

However the discovery gives no indication of how often mating between the different groups occurred, according to Ron Pinhasi, a physical anthropologist at the University of Vienna who wasn't involved in the study. It is littered with bone fragments, deposited in sedimentary layers.

Recent research showing that Neanderthals were not, in fact, knuckle-dragging brutes makes this scenario all the more plausible.

"It is striking that we find this Neandertal/Denisovan child among the handful of ancient individuals whose genomes have been sequenced", Svante Pääbo, lead author of the study and director of the Department of Evolutionary Genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, said in a statement. The girl is called Denisova 11 because the bone represents the 11th distinct individual found in the cave. Denisovan DNA remnants are also widespread, albeit less evenly.

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

Both groups disappeared by about 40,000 years ago.

"It will be good a day when we find the fossil skulls of these Denisovans to work out what hominin they are". Neanderthals lived in Europe and Asia, while fossils of Denisovans are known only from the cave where the fragment was found.

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