Credit: Flickr.

Credit: Flickr.

Recent digs and studies have revealed that Neanderthals, our close cousins, lived complex lives, which were very similar to our own. Neanderthals are now known for crafting complex tools, jewelry and other symbolic objects, or engaging in cultural practices such as ritual burials and cave art. And although Neanderthals went extinct more than 50,000 years ago, much of their rich history is still waiting to be uncovered — from their genes.

Most recently, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, sequenced the nuclear genome of two Neanderthal individuals who lived around 120,000 years ago. One genome sequence was performed on the femur of a male discovered in 1937 in Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave, Germany, the other on the maxillary bone of a girl found in 1993 in Scladina Cave, Belgium.

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Most of our DNA is stored in the cell’s nucleus, while some of it is also stored in the mitochondria, i.e. mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Nuclear DNA is inherited equally from both parents; a child will inherit 50% of their nuclear DNA from the mother and the other 50% from their father. Meanwhile, mtDNA is passed on exclusively from the mother’s side.

The nuclear genomes of the two Neanderthals — the oldest genomes that scientists have sequenced thus far — revealed a surprising picture. Basically, these early Neanderthals in Western Europe were more closely related to some of the last Neanderthals living in the same region some 80,000 years ago than they were to contemporaneous Neanderthals living in Siberia.
The femur of a male Neandertal from Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave, Germany. Credit: Oleg Kuchar, Museum Ulm.

The femur of a male Neandertal from Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave, Germany. Credit: Oleg Kuchar, Museum Ulm.

“The result is truly extraordinary and a stark contrast to the turbulent history of replacements, large-scale admixtures and extinctions that is seen in modern human history,” said Kay Prüfer of Max Plank who supervised the study.
On the other hand, the mitochondrial genome of the Neanderthal from Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave has 70 mutations that distinguish it from the mtDNA of other early Neanderthals. This suggests that early European Neanderthals may have inherited some of their DNA from a hominid that’s yet to be discovered.
“This unknown population could represent an isolated Neanderthal population yet to be discovered, or may be from a potentially larger population in Africa related to modern humans,” explains Stéphane Peyrégne who led the analysis.
The findings suggest that Neanderthal populations in Europe went through multiple waves of replacement. But where did these new populations come from and were these turbulent re-populations limited to a particular region? Whatever the case may be, it becomes clearer with each new study that admixture was the norm in both Neanderthal and modern human populations (which today contain at least 2% Neanderthal DNA in their genomes).