There Were Far More Neanderthals Than Previously Thought

It is now thought that Neanderthals split from their cousins the Denisovans around 744,000 years ago. S. ENTRESSANGLE/E. DAYNES/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

What we thought we knew about the Neanderthals may have been wrong. It seems there were many more of our heavy-browed cousins than archaeological evidence suggests, and they most likely occurred as a species far earlier than anyone had thought.

A new study has delved deeply into the genetics of Neanderthals, the arcane Denisovans, and ourselves, to better understand how all three species relate to each other. They found that despite the low genetic diversity suggesting that there may have only been a few thousand Neanderthals stalking the forests of Eurasia, this is likely an error relating to how the species lived, and that it was much more probable that there were tens of thousands living in small fragmented populations.

The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was able to reveal a number of new findings about the history of Neanderthals over the past million years. Amazingly, they were able to see that the lineage that would eventually give rise to Neanderthals and Denisovans splitting from our own ancestors – which is thought to have happened when Homo erectus migrated from Africa – very nearly went extinct.

If this had happened, it would have meant that Neanderthals would never have come to dominate Europe, and when our own species eventually made it out of Africa, we would have found a distinctly different landscape, empty of many other hominins we now know were flourishing.

It also seems that our date for when Neanderthals first came about might also be off. This latest study claims that the split between Neanderthals and Denisovans occurred much earlier than is usually thought, placing it at around 744,000 years ago. After this point, it seems that one species remained largely in Europe and the Near East, while the other eked a living in the mountainous regions of Siberia.

Finally, the researchers may have been able to explain why past estimations of population sizes of Neanderthals have come back with numbers ranging in the low thousands. They suggest that there were actually tens of thousands of them, but that they lived in small fragmented populations, limiting gene flow and therefore giving the impression that there were not very many of them.

“The idea is that there are these small, geographically isolated populations, like islands, that sometimes interact, but it's a pain to move from island to island. So, they tend to stay with their own populations,” explained Ryan Bohlender, co-author of the study, in a statement.

This could alter how we traditionally view Neanderthals, and could further our understanding of their behavior, culture, and identity.

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