Earlier this year, I discussed the publication of a mitochondrial DNA study from a 50,000 year old pinky bone from Denisova in Siberia. The big story there was that the mtDNA of this specimen was twice as divergent (different) from modern humans as Neandertal mtDNA. This suggested to researchers that there was this rogue human group (some [not I] might say ‘species’) running around Eurasia around the time of the Upper Paleolithic.
Well now they’ve sequenced the nuclear genome of one of a Denisova denizen. The picture painted is that a Denisova-Neandertal ‘lineage’ split off from that of modern humans some time in the distant past, then the Denisovans split from Neandertals some time later. Most interesting, modern-day Melanesians seem to derive about 4% of their genes from this ‘archaic’ Denisovan lineage, whereas this archaic genetic baggage isn’t present in other modern human populations.
AMAZING! Think back to the draft of the Neandertal nuclear genome, also published earlier this year. Green and colleagues (2010) reported that the Neandertal nuclear genome revealed that Neandertals contributed up to 4% of the genomes of modern-day non-Africans. Now, the Denisova genome shows that a different and more specific group of modern humans (Melanesians) appears to uniquely share a different set of nuclear genes from an ‘extinct’ human group.
But if they contributed their genes to modern people, are they really extinct? Of course not! I’m admittedly not a geneticist, but I think what we’re seeing here are the genetic signatures of a single, ancient structured population of modern humans. That is to say, all modern humans derive different amounts of their genes from various ancient subpopulations of ‘archaic’ humans (for ‘archaic,’ think ‘people that lived a long time ago’). There was just little enough contact between these populations for them to have diverged slightly from one another, but still enough contact for them all to have contributed different parts and amounts of genes to people today.
It is weird, then, to see the ancient DNA geneticist Svante Pääbo (out of whose lab this ancient genetic work is done) say this to BBC News:
“It is fascinating to see direct evidence that these archaic species did exist (alongside us) and it’s only for the last few tens of thousands of years that is unique in our history that we are alone on this planet and we have no close relatives with us anymore.”
Why are these ‘archaic species…alongside us”? The fact that these groups were mixing means that they are a single species – the ability (and propensity) to interbreed is the standard definition of ‘species’ used in modern biology.
So contrary to Pääbo’s quote, I’d say we do have close relatives with us, it’s just that modern humans are much more closely to one another related than ancient human populations were to one another. Probably there is more contact between modern human populations, beginning a few tens of thousands of years ago, because population sizes explode to the some 7 billion people we have on earth today. This greater contact means less chance for populations to diverge from one another.
The take-home: We all have multiple ancestors, from various times and places. For more comprehensive and better-informed coverage, check out John Hawks’s post on the topic.
Green, R., Krause, J., Briggs, A., Maricic, T., Stenzel, U., Kircher, M., Patterson, N., Li, H., Zhai, W., Fritz, M., Hansen, N., Durand, E., Malaspinas, A., Jensen, J., Marques-Bonet, T., Alkan, C., Prufer, K., Meyer, M., Burbano, H., Good, J., Schultz, R., Aximu-Petri, A., Butthof, A., Hober, B., Hoffner, B., Siegemund, M., Weihmann, A., Nusbaum, C., Lander, E., Russ, C., Novod, N., Affourtit, J., Egholm, M., Verna, C., Rudan, P., Brajkovic, D., Kucan, Z., Gusic, I., Doronichev, V., Golovanova, L., Lalueza-Fox, C., de la Rasilla, M., Fortea, J., Rosas, A., Schmitz, R., Johnson, P., Eichler, E., Falush, D., Birney, E., Mullikin, J., Slatkin, M., Nielsen, R., Kelso, J., Lachmann, M., Reich, D., & Paabo, S. (2010). A Draft Sequence of the Neandertal Genome Science, 328 (5979), 710-722 DOI: 10.1126/science.1188021
Reich D, Green RE, Kircher M, Krause J, Patterson N, Durand EY, Viola B, Briggs AW, Stenzel U, Johnson PL, Maricic T, Good JM, Marques-Bonet T, Alkan C, Fu Q, Mallick S, Li H, Meyer M, Eichler EE, Stoneking M, Richards M, Talamo S, Shunkov MV, Derevianko AP, Hublin JJ, Kelso J, Slatkin M, & Pääbo S (2010). Genetic history of an archaic hominin group from Denisova Cave in Siberia. Nature, 468 (7327), 1053-60 PMID: 21179161