Did Neanderthals Mate with Humans?
In 2008, members of the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany were able to sequence the complete mitochondrial genome of a Neanderthal. The mitochondrial DNA (or mtDNA) including 13 protein-coding genes, are inherited from the mother`s side. The study showed that the last time Neanderthals and Humans shared a common ancestor was between 520,000 and 800,000 years ago. So, although Neanderthals and Homo-Sapien’s genomes are 99.5% identical, the mtDNA differed in 27 of the 379 spots they examined. This difference is much greater than those of the first African Homo-Sapiens with modern humans, which differ in only 8 spots. The results of this study should have dissolved all speculation that Homo-Sapiens and Neanderthals interbred. But this only proves that the maternal lineage showed no evidence of interbreeding. Many subject matter experts still believe Homo-Sapiens and Neanderthals not only co-habitated in Europe and the Middle East, but that Neanderthals and humans did have intimate relations and were eventually absorbed into the modern Human communities.
The mtDNA of Neanderthals showed there were surprisingly large number of mutations in the Neanderthals mtDNA, indicating that there was a limited gene pool for natural selection. Previous archaeological evidence proved that once Homo-Sapiens left Africa and populated the Middle East and Europe, they quickly outnumbered the Neanderthals. In fact, those involved with mtDNA study speculate that by the time Homo-Sapiens encountered the Neanderthals in the Middle East and Europe, the Neanderthal population in Europe was no larger than 10,000. This figure is the best estimate for the Neanderthal population in Europe 35,000 years ago when it is believed Homo-Sapiens first entered their area. Neanderthals vanished from Europe approximately 8,000 years later.
Even though research so far indicates there is no maternal common relative, Prof. Dr. Svante Paable, Director, Department of Genetics. Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, boldly stated that the two species did have sex, but it remained an open question as to whether children resulted and whether they left a legacy in our genomes. Paleoanthropologist Katerina Harvati of the University of Tübingen in Germany, disclosed “Would they have recognized each other as possible mates? We know when closely related primate species meet, they sometimes interbreed in nature, not just in zoos, and this is something we see not just in primates, but with other closely related species among mammals”.
And closely related we were. Neanderthals lived in complex social groups, were proficient hunters, controlled fire, cared for their sick and ritualistically buried their dead. Some evidence even suggests Neanderthals provided flower offerings during the burial of loved ones as seen by the unnaturally high levels of wildflower pollen in some Neanderthal grave sites.
So although only 10,000 Neanderthals may have been present when modern man first entered Europe, a possibility still exists that Neanderthals mated with humans. German Anthropologist, Gunter Brauer opined that Neanderthals and modern Humans were not so different that they could not have interbred. Modern Humans may in fact have some Neanderthal ancestry, even if their genes are an extremely small part of our genetic makeup.