Neanderthals Died Out Later Than Previously Believed

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The last of the Neanderthals, the immediate ancestors of modern humans, died out 3,000 years later than previously believed.

According to a new study published in the journal Helion, Neanderthals remained alive near the area that is now Spain.

"In three new excavation sites, we found Neanderthal artifacts dated to thousands of years later than anywhere else in Western Europe," said Joao Zilhao, the lead author of the study, in a statement. "Even in the adjacent regions of northern Spain and southern France the latest Neanderthal sites are all significantly older."

The results suggest a patchy and uneven pattern to evolution rather than a straightforward one, Newsweek reports. Whereas the Neanderthals in other areas of Europe were believed to die out between 40,000 to 42,000 years ago, the artifacts produced by the Neanderthals examined in the study were about 37,000 years old.

"We believe that the stop-and-go, punctuated, uneven mechanism we propose must have been the rule in human evolution, which helps explaining why Paleolithic material culture tends to form patterns of geographically extensive similarity while Paleolithic genomes tend to show complex ancestry patchworks," said Zilhao.

Public Radio International reported on two papers published in October that revealed just how prevalent Neanderthal genes still are in human society.

According to one of the studies published in Science, some modern humans could carry as much as 2.6 percent Neanderthal DNA, meaning those people would share over 1/25 of their genome with their genetic ancestors.

The other study, published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, sought to identify certain traits that were linked with Neanderthal genes. To do that, the researchers sequenced the genome of the remains of a 52,000-year-old Neanderthal woman found in Croatia -- a place where ancient humans and Neanderthals once interacted.

The woman found in Croatia had DNA that was much closer to that of modern humans than to another Neanderthal specimen found in Siberia, where they were more or less isolated from humans.

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The researchers found that Neanderthal genes were linked with biological traits both positive and negative, such as a lower risk of eating disorders but a higher risk of bad cholesterol. More than half of the strong associations between human and Neanderthal genes were related to skin pigmentation.

"But those variants go in different directions," said Svante Paabo, a genetic biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. "There are some variants that make you more pale and more susceptible to get sunburn, but there are also other variants that make you more darkly pigmented to protect against sun … Neanderthals varied just as we do -- varied in their skin pigmentation, and different people have inherited different variants from them."

Source: Newsweek, Public Radio International / Featured Image: Allan Henderson/Flickr / Embedded Images: Jacklee/Flickr, Tim Evanson/Flickr

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