Humans Were Likely Boinking Neanderthals Earlier Than We Thought

The discovery actually says something important about modern humans' migration out of Africa.

18/02/2016 9:06 AM AEDT | Updated 18/02/2016 9:27 AM AEDT

Scientists have new evidence that our species and Neanderthals were doing the prehistoric tango as far back as 100,000 years ago.

What's a Neanderthal exactly, and why does Stone Age sex matter? Here's some background: The scientific name for modern humans walking the Earth today is Homo sapiens sapiens. Most scientists today describe Neanderthals, which are extinct, as Homo neanderthalensis -- a species distinct from modern humans -- though some scientists still hold that Neanderthals were a subspecies of Homo sapiens. They looked pretty similar to modern humans, but were stockier, with more prominent, sloping brows and wide noses.

Neanderthals are also our closest evolutionary relative, and scientists know that at some point tens of thousands of years ago, Neanderthals and Homo sapiens mated to some degree. 

Previously, scientists had evidence the interbreeding was going on around 50,000 to 60,000 years ago, but an international research team has established “strong evidence” that Neanderthals and modern humans were mating 100,000 years ago, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

From Reuters:

Scientists said on Wednesday an analysis of the genome of a Neanderthal woman whose remains were found in a cave in the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia near the Russia-Mongolia border detected residual DNA from Homo sapiens, a sign of inter-species mating.

One reason this is significant is because it indicates that at least some modern humans were journeying out of Africa earlier than many scientists thought.

"It's been known for several years, following the first sequencing of the Neanderthal genome in 2010, that Neanderthals and humans must have interbred," Professor Adam Siepel, a co-leader of the research and a quantitative biologist at New York’s Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, said in a news release. "But the data so far refers to an event dating to around 47,000-65,000 years ago, around the time that human populations emigrated from Africa. The event we found appears considerably older than that event.”

Professor Chris Stringer, the head of human origins at London’s Natural History Museum, who was not involved in the study, told the BBC that researchers aren’t sure of the circumstances surrounding this early sexual contact.

“At the moment we simply don't know how these matings happened, and the possibilities range from relatively peaceful exchanges of partners, to one group raiding another and stealing females … to adopting abandoned or orphaned babies,” Stringer said.

And before you go and think early Homo sapiens would be too good to consensually sleep with lowly Neanderthals, know that Neanderthals’ reputation for being lumbering dolts is undeserved, according to recent research.

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