Modern forensic DNA techniques normally used to determine the identity of modern humans have been applied to a Neanderthal infant. This is only the second time molecular analysis of a Neanderthal has been possible and the first molecular analysis undertaken on a specimen that has been radio-carbon dated and shown to be alive at the same time as modern humans.
The results show that modern man was not in fact descended from Neanderthals, supporting the out-of-Africa model of modern human evolution where modern humans emerged from Africa around 100,000 ago replacing archaic predecessors such as the Neanderthals.
Reported in this week's Nature (30 March) researchers at Glasgow's Human Identification Centre, University of Glasgow, and co-workers in Russia and Sweden have used molecular genetic techniques to compare mitochondrial DNA sampled from this infant, who lived 30,000 years ago, with modern human DNA. What this shows is that the Neanderthal and modern humans diverged around 500,000 years ago. This appears to settle conclusively an ongoing topic of debate between scientists on our relationship with the Neanderthals, which has proved quite heated.
The technique focuses on the hypervariable region of the mitochondrial DNA region which evolves rapidly and is commonly used to establish evolutionary relationships between species.
Dr William Goodwin, from the University of Glasgow said, " It is something of a mystery how this child's remains were so perfectly preserved, buried in the limestone Mezmaiskaya cave which is in the northern Caucasus until its discovery in 1987 by Dr. Golovanova and colleagues (a member of several Moscow based institutes). Normally you only get material with this degree of preservation in material from permafrost areas."
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