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K. Kris Hirst

Humans and Neanderthals Not Related

By August 13, 2008

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Vindija Cave, Croatia
Photo by Fred H. Smith

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A newly retrieved Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequence indicates that humans anatomically modern humans (AMH) and Neanderthals are different species, and in fact evolved separately sometime between 550,000 and 820,000 years ago.

Last week in the journal Cell, a team led by Svante Paabo reported that a complete Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequence has been recovered from a bone excavated at the Vindija Cave site in Croatia.

Bone Vi-80

The bone, referred to as bone 33.16 in the latest article, is called Vi-80 in the older literature. Vi-80 is a fragment of a bone from a male Neanderthal. The bone was excavated from the G3 level of Vindija cave in 1980; it has been radiocarbon dated to 38,310 +/- 2130 radiocarbon years before the present (RCYBP). G3 is one of four and maybe five fairly intact levels at Vindija that hold human remains: Vindija cave's archaeological levels hold remains of both AMH and Neanderthals in its deposits. Level G3 is strictly a Neanderthal level, with Mousterian-type artifacts alongside. See the Vindija Cave glossary entry for specifics.

It is great good luck that a bone excavated nearly 30 years ago has not been contaminated by modern DNA from people handling the bone. Researchers looking at Vi-80 (among other samples) discovered DNA fragments there that were predominantly Neanderthal ~99% of the 63 base-pair mtDNA segments and ~94% of the 119-base pair segments were of Neanderthal origin. It so far is the most DNA recovered from a Neanderthal individual. That level of integrity allowed Green and colleagues to recreate the entire mtDNA sequence.

Neanderthals, Family and Neighbors

Interestingly, Lalueza-Fox and colleagues discovered similar DNA sequences--fragments of sequences, that is--in Neanderthals from Feldhofer Cave (Germany) and El Sidron (northern Spain), leading them to suggest that a common demographic history existed among Neanderthal groups in eastern Europe and the Iberian peninsula. The implications of that, with respect to movement of Neanderthal populations and interactions with AMH populations living in the same vicinity, have yet to be discussed.

Sources and Further Info

Vindija Cave, Croatia.
Vindija Cave, Croatia.
Photo Credit: Fred H. Smith

A substantial bibliography is available on the glossary entry for Vindija Cave. See also the Neanderthal Study Guide, and the discussion on Anatomically Modern Humans

Added 8/15/08See Sequencing Neanderthals on BrainEthics for an interesting discussion of the purpose of the Neanderthal sequencing project.


August 13, 2008 at 1:42 pm
(1) NS Gill says:

You say it wasn’t contaminated. Good thing a certain archaeologist wasn’t involved…. But how do you determine whether or not something has been contaminated?

August 13, 2008 at 1:48 pm
(2) Kallie says:

Are they any closer to figuring out why the Neanderthals went extinct?

Was that our fault?

August 13, 2008 at 2:14 pm
(3) M3 says:

It’s amazing to think that we could find another species so similar to humans yet slightly different, indicating a common ancestor and even the idea that homo sapiens may have coexisted and even killed off this competing species. It’s similar to the homo floresiensis and the Ebu Gogo story. Very interesting indeed.

August 13, 2008 at 3:28 pm
(4) Randall says:

You always write such fascinating posts.

Kallie… *everything* is our fault… according to some “experts”.

August 13, 2008 at 9:00 pm
(5) Sukhmandir Kaur says:

Those are very interesting pictures from different perspectives. The one really brings to home the expression “mouth of the cave” I’m imagining eyes too. From inside you can almost imagine what an (eye) tooth’s eyeview of the world is like :)
On a more scientific note I’m wondering what size a neanderthal would be compared to modern huumans? (I’m thinking Bigfoot – OK so i’m not being all that sientific LOL, but I do have a good imagination :)

August 13, 2008 at 9:28 pm
(6) Suzanne says:

That’s odd… I know a few humans I would swear were related to Neanderthals. ;)

August 14, 2008 at 2:26 am
(7) Susan says:

Being of the romantic type, I really wanted to believe that the species had just eventually merged; all’s fair in love and war, you know! I agree with Suzanne, I know several candidates for throwbacks, not just in behavior, but in heavy brow and thick jaw. The hunched shoulders and bent-kneed walk must come from somewhere, right?
But Homo Sapiens is a murderous species, killing even our own infants. So where is the surprise that we would commit genocide to become the rulers of this world?

August 14, 2008 at 6:44 am
(8) Clement says:

How does the dna compare to Apes, chimps, which are fairly close to human?
Also, I do not believe there was no
inter-mix between the two species. If it walks, some men, somewhere, will have sex with it. Whether it
results in breeding is another matter.

August 14, 2008 at 8:05 am
(9) Chefdruck says:

That is so interesting. I’m going to share this with my kids. Thanks for the wordless wednesday comment on my blog!

August 15, 2008 at 9:39 am
(10) Kristin says:

Not *so* wordless maybe — but what a lovely picture.

August 18, 2008 at 4:35 pm
(11) Richard Firsten says:

I’m quite surprised that the terminology used here has been “Neanderthal and human,” as if Neanderthals weren’t human. My understanding has always been that they were indeed members of the human family, just not homo sapiens sapiens. Has this viewpoint changed among paleoanthropologists? I’d really like to know.

August 18, 2008 at 7:25 pm
(12) Jim says:

Those of us who believe in the devine origin of man,created by God as human, are not surprised.
Maybe, just maybe, we can now express our opinion without fear of ridicule.

August 18, 2008 at 9:20 pm
(13) Kris Hirst says:

Good point Richard! No, you are right–Neanderthals are still considered humans. I mean to say “Anatomically modern humans”, and I’ll go in and make those changes.



August 20, 2008 at 6:39 am
(14) M. Jaradat says:

Yes, it is great to get more things about prehistoric life. Hope to have more studies in this field in our area (Middle East).

August 21, 2008 at 1:48 pm
(15) Aniruddha says:

I feel you should Date the bone with some other methods as well (instead of relying on the age old methods like – C14) Nice photographs are subordinate to good work not a substitute, you might understand this, carry on the good work – An archaeologist

November 21, 2008 at 9:11 pm
(16) ruth q says:

im doing a report of them im 12

March 22, 2009 at 8:59 am
(17) jon says:

So after being buried in the ground for 35,000 to 40,000 years how one can determine that the DNA has not been contaminated? So we know that no animal has ever touched the bone, it has never been picked up by a curious by passer just after death?
How did the bone become fragmented?
What else was found in the encasing soil?
Was this soil tested for contaminating DNA?
Was this an odd fragment or was it a much fuller skeleton?
Maybe these the answers are elsewhere but if I presented this level of “evidence” to show the existence of another species of animal it simply would be subject to a lot more rigour.

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