Traces of long-lost human cousins may be hiding in modern people’s DNA, a new computer analysis suggests.
People from Melanesia, a region in the South Pacific encompassing Papua New Guinea and surrounding islands, may carry genetic evidence of a previously unknown extinct hominid species, Ryan Bohlender reported October 20 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics. That species is probably not Neandertal or Denisovan, but a different, related hominid group, said Bohlender, a statistical geneticist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. “We’re missing a population or we’re misunderstanding something about the relationships,” he said.
This mysterious relative was probably from a third branch of the hominid family tree that produced Neandertals and Denisovans, an extinct distant cousin of Neandertals. While many Neandertal fossils have been found in Europe and Asia, Denisovans are known only from DNA from a finger bone and a couple of teeth found in a Siberian cave.
Bohlender isn’t the first to suggest that remnants of archaic human relatives may have been preserved in human DNA even though no fossil remains have been found. In 2012, another group of researchers suggested that some people in Africa carry DNA heirlooms from an extinct hominid species.
Less than a decade ago, scientists discovered that human ancestors mixed with Neandertals. People outside of Africa still carry a small amount of Neandertal DNA, some of which may cause health problems. Bohlender and colleagues calculate that Europeans and Chinese people carry a similar amount of Neandertal ancestry: about 2.8 percent. Europeans have no hint of Denisovan ancestry, and people in China have a tiny amount — 0.1 percent, according to Bohlender’s calculations. But 2.74 percent of the DNA in people in Papua New Guinea comes from Neandertals, and another 3 to 6 percent stems from Denisovans, Bohlender calculated.
When trying to explain that unusually high percentage of extinct ancestry, Bohlender and colleagues came to the conclusion that a third group of hominids may have bred with the ancestors of Melanesians. “Human history is a lot more complicated than we thought it was,” Bohlender said.
Another group of researchers, led by Eske Willerslev, an evolutionary geneticist at the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, recently came to a similar conclusion. Willerslev’s group examined DNA from 83 aboriginal Australians and 25 people from native populations in the Papua New Guinea highlands. The researchers found Denisovan-like DNA in the study volunteers, the group reported October 13 in Nature. But the DNA is genetically distinct from Denisovans and may be from another extinct hominid. “Who this group is we don’t know,” Willerslev says. They could be Homo erectus or the extinct hominids found in Indonesia known as Hobbits, he speculates.
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