‘Ghost’ ancestors: African DNA study detects mysterious human species

14 Février, 2020, 12:22 | Auteur: Therese Cote
  • An Osun goddess worshipper prays to an idol at the Osun sacred Grove in Osogbo southwestern Nigeria as Osun worshippers thronged tropical woodland that forms the spiritual home of the river goddess Osun for the annual festival for one of the principal

We know this because traces of this ancient interbreeding have been transmitted to the genomes of modern-day west African populations, according to a recent study.

Researchers have unearthed information of an extinct human species that lived in Africa approximately half a million years ago.

A new study comparing the genomes of 405 West African people to Neanderthal and Denisovan sequences has revealed the "ghost" of a mysterious and previously unknown hominin that once lived alongside our ancestors.

Tens of thousands of years ago, modern humans may have interbred with a yet-to-be-identified related species.

They ruled out DNA from modern humans and found the presence of DNA from "an archaic ghost population".

Sriram Sankararaman, a computational biologist at UCLA and one of the study's authors, said: 'It's nearly certainly the case that the story is incredibly complex and complicated and we have kind of these initial hints about the complexity'.

It's very possible that many of these genes were kept across the generations because they provide an adaptive value to West African populations. When they found each other, mating was only a natural process. As a result, modern Europeans carry a smattering of Neanderthal genes, while indigenous Australians, Polynesians and Melanesians carry genes from Denisovans, another group of archaic humans.

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After this discovery scientists scoured African genomes for DNA that was different from that of the modern human.

With difficulties in obtaining a full fossil records and ancient DNA, scientists' understanding of the genetic diversity within West African populations has been poor.

Further tests show that they can represent up to 19% of the genetic ancestry found in the genomes.

The four groups analyzed came from three countries: two from Nigeria, one from Sierra Leone, and one from Gambia.

The findings on ghost DNA, published in the journal Science Advances, further complicate the picture of how Homo sapiens - or modern humans - evolved away from other human relatives. Next, the researchers plan to focus on some of these genes in order to tease out what they do.

One of the most remarkable things about the 2014 bombshell was that it proved that the only people on the planet who did not have any Neanderthal DNA were sub-Saharan Africans. But actually knowing who those ancestors were, how they interacted, and where they existed is going to take fieldwork to find their fossil and archaeological remains.

The unknown group "appears to have split off from the ancestors of modern humans a little before when Neanderthals split off from our ancestors", he says. "Within Africa, we don't know how many archaic groups might have been involved, and the study doesn't tell us that", she says.

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