Almost all of the remains of Neanderthals have been found in southern Europe and western Asia. They were not thought to have gone much further east than the Altai Mountains in central Asia, on the borders of what are now Russia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan. But the new findings have raised the prospect that Neanderthals lived in the east of the continent and may have clung on there for longer than their European relatives, who died out around 30,000 years ago – we have just yet to find the archaeological evidence.
Professor Joshua Akey, a geneticist at the University of Washington who led one of two new studies, said: ‘The history of admixture between modern humans and Neanderthals is most likely more complex than previously thought.’ The research was conducted by two separate teams working at the University of Washington and the University of California, Los Angeles. Professor Akey and his colleague Benjamin Vernot analysed distinctive patterns in the DNA of 379 modern Europeans and 286 modern East Asians from China and Japan. Using computer models they attempted to simulate how the mixtures of Neanderthal DNA seen in the European and East Asian genomes could have occurred They concluded that one theory – that modern Europeans interbred more with populations from Africa to water down the Neanderthal DNA they carried – was unlikely. Instead they found it was more likely that ancestors of the East Asian populations had bred with Neanderthals more than once.
Mr Vernot said: ‘One thing that complicates these analyses is the fact that humans have been constantly migrating throughout their history – this makes it hard to say exactly where interactions with Neanderthals occurred. ‘It’s possible, for example, that all of the interbreeding with Neanderthals occurred in the Middle East, before the ancestors of modern non-Africans spread out across Eurasia. ‘In the model from the paper, the ancestors of all non-Africans interbred with Neanderthals, and then split up into multiple groups that would later become Europeans, East Asians. ‘Shortly after they split up, the ancestors of East Asians interbred with Neanderthals just a little bit more. ‘The important thing is that we show that we didn’t just meet Neanderthals once in our history – it looks like we met them multiple times. ‘But as we are able to look at individuals from more and more populations, we’ll hopefully get a better idea of where our ancestors have been, and where they may have interacted with Neanderthals.’ Via Neanderthals interbred for longer with East Asian humans