Scientists recently discovered that a 50,000-year-old bone fragment belonged to a cave girl who had a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father, which they believe proves that the Neanderthals had unexpected sexual habits.
According to a CNN report, 390,000 years ago the two species, which are the closest extinct relatives of humans, became separate groups, but this discovery proves that they continued to intermingle at times. Nature published the details of the exciting development.
In a statement, Viviane Slon, study author and researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, said, “We knew from previous studies that Neandertals and Denisovans must have occasionally had children together. But I never thought we would be so lucky as to find an actual offspring of the two groups.”
The BBC reported that until around 40,000 years ago Neanderthals mainly lived in the west while Denisovans stayed in the east, and the two groups mingled in Eurasia. According to the details the scientists extrapolated from the bone fragments, they believe the cave girl, whom they call Denisova 11, was at least 13 years old. In 2012, researchers discovered the bone in a cave located in the Altai Mountains in Siberia. Other remains of Denisovan and Neanderthal descent have been found in the same cave.
Denisova 11’s genome revealed that she is a Neanderthal-Denisovan, and her parents contributed equally to her DNA makeup making her a first-generation descendant of the intermingled species. Which lead researcher, Svante Pääbo, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, said was “almost too lucky to be true,” according to NPR.
According to a statement from study co-author Fabrizio Mafessoni of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, “An interesting aspect of this genome is that it allows us to learn things about two populations — the Neandertals from the mother’s side, and the Denisovans from the father’s side.”
The maternal ancestor was closely related to Neanderthals who lived in western Europe while the paternal ancestor was a Denisovan who had at least one Neanderthal ancestor further back in his family tree. The discovery may help researchers learn more about Denisovans, which were first discovered in 2010, because so far scientists very few clues about the group. The few details they have include information garnered from a finger bone, a toe bone, and some teeth to learn about the species.
Co-author, Benjamin Vernot, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, said, “from this single genome, we are able to detect multiple instances of interactions between Neandertals and Denisovans.”
Researchers believe that the two species did not often meet, but that when they did, they must have mated more often than they initially thought. Also, humans mixed with them as well. Ultimately, scientists believe that the distinct species disappeared from the fossil record because they eventually became assimilated into human genomes as they all intermingled.