Jawbone Lifts Lid on Human-Neanderthal Sex
Shows interbreeding occurred in Europe 37K to 42K years ago
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 23, 2015 9:50 AM CDT
This modern human jawbone was found in a cave in Romania in 2002.   (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology)

(Newser) – A jawbone found in Romania more than a decade ago provides the first genetic evidence that humans and Neanderthals knocked boots in Europe before the latter disappeared between 35,000 and 40,000 years ago. Scientists who came across the bone of one of the earliest modern humans in Europe in a cave known as Pestera cu Oase noticed it had both modern human and Neanderthal traits. Now, a study of the bone's DNA—made possible by recent technological advances—explains why. "The sample is more closely related to Neanderthals than any other modern human we've ever looked at before," Harvard researcher David Reich explains in a press release. "We estimate that 6% to 9% of its genome is from Neanderthals. This is an unprecedented amount." In comparison, all people except sub-Saharan Africans share 1% to 4% of their DNA with Neanderthals today.

DNA in the fossil, which is 37,000 to 42,000 years old, suggests the Oase individual had a Neanderthal ancestor four to six generations back, reports Reuters. In other words, a great-great-grandparent might've been a Neanderthal, notes LiveScience. That shows interbreeding occurred far more recently than scientists had guessed; they initially thought interbreeding took place only in the Middle East between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago. "It's an incredibly unexpected thing," Reich says. "In the last few years, we've documented interbreeding between Neanderthals and modern humans, but we never thought we'd be so lucky to find someone so close to that event." You aren't likely to share any DNA with the jawbone's owner, however. Reich says the hunter-gatherer was from a "pioneer population" that entered Europe but "didn't give rise to the later population." (The oldest Neanderthal DNA is some 150,000 years old.)