Our species may have bred with a now extinct lineage of humanity before leaving Africa, scientists say.
Although we modern humans are now the only surviving lineage of humanity, others once roamed the Earth, making their way out of Africa before our species did, including the familiar Neanderthals in West Asia and Europe and the newfound Denisovans in East Asia. Genetic analysis of fossils of these extinct lineages has revealed they once interbred with modern humans, unions that may have endowed our lineage with mutations that protected them as we began expanding across the world about 65,000 yeas ago.
Now researchers analyzing the human genome find evidence that our species hybridized with a hitherto unknown human lineage even before leaving Africa, with approximately 2 percent of contemporary African DNA perhaps coming from this lineage. In comparison, recent estimates suggest that Neanderthal DNA makes up 1 percent to 4 percent of modern Eurasian genomes and Denisovan DNA makes up 4 percent to 6 percent of modern Melanesian genomes.
"We need to modify the standard model of human origins in which a single population transitioned to the anatomically modern state in isolation — a garden of Eden somewhere in Africa — and replaced all other archaic forms both within Africa and outside Africa without interbreeding," researcher Michael Hammer, a population geneticist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, told LiveScience. "We now need to consider models in which gene flow occurred over time."