The Japan Times, July 12, 1997
DNA test shows Neanderthals weren't ancestors of humans
LONDON (AP) There's no sign of Neanderthals lurking in our family tree, according to researchers whose analysis of DNA from a Neanderthal skeleton is helping resolve one of the great debates of human evolution.
Genetic differences indicate the Neanderthals were a different species than the early humans who swept them aside in Europe and Western Asia—although they appear to have split from a common ancestor a half-million years ago, according to German and U.S. scientists.
Their finding gives powerful backing to the theory that all humanity descended from an "African Eve" about 100,000 to 200,000 years ago— and that Neanderthals were an evolutionary dead end.
The DNA test "clearly lends support to this idea about our ancestry: that we have all come out of Africa quite recently in history," said Svanto Paabo, who worked on the research at the Zoological Institute at the University of Munich.
"It is a brilliant, innovative piece of work. I just doubt that it can be faulted on technical grounds," said Milford Wolpoff, a professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan. But he added that the researchers drew hasty conclusions and the argument will go on.
The researchers' findings was published in Cell, a journal based in Cambridge, Mass. Paabo said his results were independently confirmed at Pennsylvania State University.
The Munich team took a small sample of 0.4 grams from the upper arm bone of a skeleton found in 1857 in the Neander Valley near Duesseldorf—the first Neanderthal skeleton discovered.
They compared the Neanderthal's mitochondrial DNA with that of modern humans. Studying 378 base pairs, they found an average of 27 differences between modern and Neanderthal DNA, compared to the typical variation of eight between modern humans.
In the key finding, the range of genetic differences between the Neanderthal and modern humans was several times that of the range found in the family of man—regardless of whether the modern samples came from Asians, Africans or Europeans.
Paabo cautioned that study of more Neanderthal DNA samples might turn up some mixing and thus confirm the possibility of some interbreeding between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons.
Even if Neanderthals were not our ancestors, they were tantalizingly similar. They walked erect and used tools, and there is evidence that they coexisted and learned some skills from Cro-Magnon people.
One striking difference is that Neanderthals were bigger than modern humans and had larger brains.
"Any superiority that modern humans had was probably a very slight one at time, and that's why it took so long for the Neanderthals to be replaced," said Chris Stringer, a researcher at London's Natural History Museum, who appeared with Paabo at the news conference.
"Of course this is only one specimen ... but it fits so very well with the view of one side of the argument about Neanderthals—that they are very distinct, that they are not our ancestor — that -I think it goes a very long way toward resolving the Neanderthal problem," Stringer said.
THE NEANDER VALLEY SKELETON is represented by a replica at a news conference Thursday in London, where researchers from the University of Munich's Zoological Institute released a DNA study showing that Neanderthals did not interbreed with early humans.