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Tens of thousands of years ago, our ancestors spread across the world, having sex with Neanderthals, Denisovans and other groups of ancient humans as they went.Today, our genes testify to these prehistoric liaisons.
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Still, early evidence seemed to support the extreme Out of Africa version.When scientists sequenced the mitochondrial genome of Neanderthals (a small secondary set of genes set apart from the main pack), they found no evidence that any of these sequences had invaded the modern human genome.The conclusion: Neanderthals and humans never bred.The full Neanderthal genome disproved that idea, but it also shifted the question from As I mentioned in New Scientist earlier this year, modern humans were spreading into areas where Neanderthals existed.“It doesn’t necessarily take a lot of sex for genes from a resident population to infiltrate the genomes of colonisers.When an incoming group mates with an established one, the genes they pick up quickly rise to prominence as their population grows.” Now, Mathias Currat from the University of Geneva and Laurent Excoffier from the University of Berne have weighed into the debate.They simulated the spread of modern humans from Africa and their encounters with Neanderthals throughout Europe and Asia, to work out the levels of sex that would have transferred Neanderthal genes to modern genomes at their current level. That’s a conservative estimate – the true odds might have been even lower.“Such interbreedings were strongly prevented or very rarely successful,” says Excoffier.Even if the odds of successful interbreeding were just 5 percent, Neanderthal genes would make up the majority of the human genome today.As it is, a lack of viable sex explains why none of the Neanderthals’ mitochondrial DNA made its way into modern humans, and why so little of their main genome did.Currat and Excoffier suggest that either modern humans and Neanderthals didn’t have sex very often, or their hybrids weren’t very fit. According to their model, it would only have taken between 197 and 430 liaisons between ancient humans and Neanderthals to fill 1-3 percent of modern Eurasian genomes with Neanderthal DNA.