Researchers Find First Ever Human Hybrid—Result of Two Extinct Human Species

It is the first human hybrid of its kind ever discovered.

In Brief: A study published in the Journal Nature revealed the discovery of the remains of the first known human hybrid: the child’s mother was Neanderthal and its father, a Denisovan.

A hominid child who died some 90,000 years ago is believed to have been half Neanderthal and half Denisovan, according to the genomic analysis of bone fragments discovered in a Siberian cave.

This is the first time that scientists have identified an ancient hybrid human, whose parents belonged to different human groups.

The group of scientists, led by the paleogeneticists Viviane Slon and Svante Pääbo from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, performed the genome analysis on a single fragment of bone recovered from the Denisova cave in the Altai Mountains of Russia.

The Denisova Cave is of great paleoarchaeological and paleontological interest as it has yielded countless unprecedented archaeological discoveries.

The cave primarily owes its name to the Denisovans, a group of extinct humans identified for the first time based on DNA sequences from the tip of a finger bone discovered inside the cave in 2008.

The Altai region in Siberia, and the cave specifically are known to have been regions where Neanderthals lived, tens of thousands of years ago.

The new discovery is of great importance to science.

Taking into consideration patterns of genetic variation in ancient and modern humans, experts were already aware that the Denisovans and the Neanderthals must have interbred with each other, as well as with Homo Sapiens.

However, never have scientists discovered the first-generation offspring of those humans, reason why this discovery is such a big deal.

In fact, when the discovery was first made, scientists were extremely skeptical, and Pääbo thought someone must have made a mistake somewhere.

Interior of the Denisova Cave.
Image Credit Vera Salnitskaya

“I thought they must have ruined something.” Before the discovery of the Neanderthal-Denisova hybrid, whom the team calls Denny affectionately, the best evidence scientists had that backs up such a close association was DNA of a Homo sapiens specimen that had a six-generation Neanderthal ancestor.

Curiously, Denny’s bones were first uncovered in the cave in 2012, but it is only now, six years later that analysis of it has led to this remarkable discovery.

It is commonly accepted that Neanderthals and Denisovans, which share a common ancestor with humans, lived in Eurasia as far back as 400,000 years ago after they successfully migrated from Africa.

Professor Agadzhanyan, Head of the Mammal Laboratory of Moscow Paleontological Institute spoke to Siberian Times saying: “It is clear as shown by our molecular research that ….there was a family where the mother was Neanderthal, the father was Denisovan. This is a very interesting, exotic research…”

“How could these two different early humans breed?  He joked: “Well, it must be that attitude of their parents was quite liberal to allow them to do that.”

DNA analysis has shown that ‘Denny’s’  chromosomes were a stunning 50-50 mixture of Neanderthal and Denisovan, two distinct species of early humans that are believed to have split apart some 400,000 to 500,000 years ago.

“There was earlier evidence of interbreeding between different hominin, or early human, groups,’ explained lead author of the Nature study, Vivian Slon.

“But this is the first time that we have found a direct, first-generation offspring,’ she added. “The very fact that we found this individual of mixed Neanderthal and Denisovan origin suggests that they interbred much more often than we thought.”

Featured Image Credit: Vera Salnitskaya

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