Scientists studying the DNA of Neanderthals say they can find no evidence that this ancient species ever interbred with modern humans.
But our closest ancestors may well have been able to speak as well as us, said Prof Svante Paabo from Germany’s Max Planck Institute.
A total of three billion “letters”, covering 60% of the Neanderthal genome, have been sequenced by scientists from Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and 454 Life Sciences Corporation, in Branford, Connecticut.
They were the closest relatives of currently living humans, sharing between 99.5% to 99.9% of our DNA sequence.
They focused on a gene implicated in brain development – microcephalin-1 – which shows significant variation among present day humans.
It has been suggested that a particular variant of the gene, found commonly in Europeans, was contributed by Neanderthals.
But the Croatian Neanderthal fossils harboured an ancestral form of the microcephalin-1 gene, which today is also found among Africans.
Overall, it seems that Neanderthals have contributed, at most, a “very limited” fraction of the variation found in contemporary human populations, said Prof Paabo.
First, they should mention methodology: scientists looked for known genes from modern humans in Neanderthals to try to see if Neanderthals were the origins of these genes.
Second, it’s interesting how an earlier version of a brain development gene that’s quite important is shared between Neanderthals and Africans. If evolution follows the patterns elsewhere, we’ll find that Africa is the most genetically diverse because it’s the melting pot where new versions of humanity returned to interbreed. Kind of like version control.
Finally, it’s fascinating that we’re beginning to really see the Darwinian tree of life for humans — and how many, many variations have occurred to bring us to the modern time.