Ancient DNA moves Neandertals eastward

Neandertals, ancient humanlike denizens of Europe and the Middle East with controversial evolutionary links to Homo sapiens, inhabited areas at least 2,000 kilometers further east than researchers have commonly assumed, according to a new DNA analysis of previously recovered fossils.

Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and his colleagues extracted sequences of mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited solely from the mother, from fossils found in Uzbekistan and in southern Siberia.

The Uzbekistan find consists of an 8-to-10-year-old child’s partial skeleton. These remains, from about 70,000 years ago, are often classified as those of a Neandertal, although some researchers regard the fossil as that of a modern human. The Siberian discoveries include teeth and limb bones from three individuals that lived more than 30,000 years ago. Their evolutionary identity remains unclear.

Mitochondrial DNA from both finds strongly resembles corresponding genetic sequences already determined for 13 European Neandertal specimens, Pääbo’s team found. No Neandertal-like mitochondrial DNA has been located in more than 10,000 people studied so far or in a handful of fossils from Stone Age modern humans, the scientists assert in the Oct. 18 Nature.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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