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Genetics Confirm Bristol Theory on Neanderthals

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The publication of the Neanderthal genome sequence this week in Science confirms the theory that there was gene flow from Neanderthals to Modern Humans, a proposal previously made on the basis of skeletal morphology and artefacts by Professor Joao Zilhao of Bristol University's Department of Archaeology and Anthropology.

The genetic study, led by the Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, sequenced 4 billion nucleotides from the bones of three Neanderthals. It compared the sequence with the DNA of living human populations in Africa, Asia and Europe and found a greater similarity between Neanderthals and Eurasians than between Neanderthals and Africans.

This suggests there was interbreeding between Neanderthals and Modern Humans as the latter began to disperse from Africa into Europe and Central Asia after 50,000 years ago.

Professor Zilhao said: “Despite resistance from some quarters – the kind of resistance that is to be expected in times of major paradigmatic shifts – the physical, anthropological and archaeological evidence accumulated over the last decade overwhelmingly indicates that:

• Neanderthals were cognitively and culturally as advanced as their African contemporaries

• Neanderthals and Modern Humans interbred at the time of contact

• Cultural exchanges also occurred at that time, as shown, for instance, by the persistence in the culture of Europe's earliest Modern Humans of types of jewellery characteristic of the preceding Neanderthal cultures.

“The results of the Neanderthal genome project finally put the genetic evidence in line with that from archaeology and human palaeontology. The 150 year-old debate on whether Neanderthals were part of our species or an evolutionary dead-end, a separate species that went extinct without descent, thus comes to an end. It is now clear that Neanderthals contributed to the genes and the culture of present-day humans and are therefore our ancestors too.”