More evidence is showing that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals are more closely related than once thought. A new estimate suggests that our species may have diverged from Neanderthals just 408,000 years ago, which is “substantially later” than previous estimates.
Neanderthals are an extinct species of hominin who lived in Eurasia until about 40,000 years ago. Fossil remains reveal some noticeable physical differences between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, such as a shorter and broader frame, a wider pelvis, and heavier bones.
However, mounting evidence is showing that we are not so dissimilar from our heavy-browed hominin cousins. Neanderthals were artistic, adaptable, and highly intelligent. They seem to have taken great care when burying their dead relatives, implying they possessed emotional sensitivity and perhaps even had a sense of their own mortality.
Researchers have long debated when the last common ancestors between Neanderthals and humans lived, marking the point where the two different species went their separate ways on their evolutionary journey.
Statisticians at Tel-Aviv University recently used computer software called BEAST2 to study the genome of both species and work out the TMRCA (Time to Most Recent Common Ancestor). Their findings indicate that the split between modern humans and Neanderthals occurred just 408,000 years ago – which is surprisingly late.
This latest estimate from Tel-Aviv University is highly mathematical and didn’t directly involve any archaeologists or paleoanthropologists. Nevertheless, it's broadly in line with other recent studies that have hinted the divergence occurred much later than previously assumed.
Other recent evidence from both fossils and DNA suggests that Neanderthal and modern human lineages separated between 500,000 years ago to 650,000 years ago. Previous estimates indicated that the divergence could have occurred over 800,000 years ago.
Whenever the split occurred, the presence of Neanderthals didn’t stray far from us. Genetically, we're 99.7 percent identical and it is starkly clear that rampant interbreeding occurred between the species time and time again.
Genes from Neanderthals are especially prevalent in people of European descent who inherit about 2 percent of their genomes from Neanderthal ancestors. These genes still influence human populations today, such as the size of folks’ noses to their vulnerability to viral infections. Cheers for that, Neanderthals.
The new study is published in the journal BMC Genomic Data.