Until recently, the consensus among anthropologists was that humans and Neanderthals were completely separate species and probably didn't interbreed. New evidence has come to light to alter that position, and research this summer from geneticist Damian Labuda of the University of Montreal more or less completes the flip-flop.
Neanderthals, one of the last extant hominid species other than our own, left Africa somewhere between 400,000 and 800,000 years ago and settled mostly in Europe until they went extinct 30,000 years ago. Early modern humans left Africa about 80,000 to 50,000 years ago. We overlapped with Neanderthals in time and place for at least 20,000 years. On an evolutionary time scale, that's not long but there's evidence in our DNA that the two species interbred.
After comparing thousands of gene sequences, researchers at the University of Montreal have confirmed that -- with the exception of people in sub-Saharan Africa -- people today carry a tiny bit of the same X chromosome carried by Neanderthals. The findings were published in the July issue of the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.
“Our genetic identity as Homo sapiens traces back much farther than people assumed,” Labuda said. The interbreeding must have happened early on in the evolution of modern humans in and around the Middle East, where both populations overlapped.
Neanderthals controlled fire, lived in shelters and occasionally made symbolic or ornamental objects, also known as art. The first fossil was discovered in Germany in the Neander Valley in 1856.
Read more in this article from the Vancouver Sun.