Humans Confirmed To Have Mated With The Now-Extinct Denisovans - Multiple Times

Denisova cave, Siberia, where the mysterious Denisovans once lived. loronet/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Josh Davis 15 Mar 2018, 16:00

It turned out that modern Papuans inherited about 5 percent of their genome from Denisovans, and when researchers started searching further afield, the ancient hominin's genes began cropping up throughout Asia. The relatively high amount of Denisovan DNA found in Papuans led researchers to assume that as their ancestors made their way through Asia, they mated with the ancient species before getting to Papua New Guinea. Following this, some people migrated back to East Asia, bringing the Denisovan genes with them.

“But in this new work with East Asians, we find a second set of Denisovan ancestry that we do not find in the South Asians and Papuans,” explained Sharon Browning, the paper's senior author. “This Denisovan ancestry in East Asians seems to be something they acquired themselves.”

The migration of humans out of Africa is complex and convoluted. Karl-Ludwig Poggemann/Flickr CC BY 2.0

The suggestion, therefore, is that there were two independent mating events. One between the ancestors of Papuans and Denisovans, and the other between the ancestors of all other East Asians and Denisovans. The former likely happened as humans migrated along a southern route, and the latter as humans went north. What is more, the evidence seems to suggest that those on the mainland are more closely related to the extinct hominin than those from Papua New Guinea. The findings are published in the journal Cell.

“When we compared pieces of DNA from the Papuans against the Denisovan genome, many sequences were similar enough to declare a match, but some of the DNA sequences in the East Asians, notably Han Chinese, Chinese Dai, and Japanese, were a much closer match with the Denisovan,” said Browning. 

The team now want to turn their attention to Africa, where they are sure more "ghost" human species exist in the genome of people still alive today, even if the environmental conditions mean that any fossil remains are unlikely to have survived. 

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