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Svante Pääbo, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Svante Pääbo, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

Modern Human's Great-Great-Grandparent May Have Been a Neanderthal

Svante Pääbo, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Svante Pääbo, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

A man who lived between 37,000 and 42,000 years ago in Romania probably had a great-great-grandparent who was Neanderthal, according to a new paper in the journal Nature.

Researchers have sequenced the DNA from the man, who was an early modern human, and discovered that between 6 percent and 9.4 percent of his genome comes from Neanderthals. That’s more Neanderthal DNA than any other modern human we’ve analyzed so far. “It could be four to six generations back,” says Qiaomei Fu, a paleogenomicist at Harvard Medical School. “It’s almost like this guy can touch the Neanderthal. So this is amazing.”

Fu and her team based the analysis on DNA extracted from a jawbone discovered in 2002 in a Romanian cave called Peștera cu Oase (thus the subject’s name, Oase 1). “The only access to the cave is by scuba diving through an underground river,” Erik Trinkaus, a palaeoanthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, told Nature.

Oase 1 would have looked at least a little Neanderthal. Anatomically speaking, his jaw had both early human and Neanderthal features, including abnormally large wisdom teeth. Using a dentistry drill, Fu and her colleagues collected powder from his jawbone. “We saw really, really large chunks” of Neanderthal DNA in his genome, Fu says.

Oase 1 was one of the earliest modern human residents of Europe, which the Neanderthals had called home at least 300,000 years ago. They started to die off about 40,000 years ago as people like Oase 1 moved in. We've known for several years that these two versions of early humans interbred. Any human living today with non-African heritage carries some Neanderthal DNA—between 1 percent and 4 percent of their genome. Oase 1 carries double to triple that amount. 

It isn't clear when and where this interbreeding began. The most common theory is that we mated with Neanderthals in the Middle East as we migrated out of Africa, some 50,000 years ago. Oase 1's remains show that Neanderthals and modern humans mixed in Europe too, and far more recently—even as Neanderthals as a whole were dying out.

“The fact that the Oase 1 individual had a Neanderthal ancestor removed by only four to six generations allows this Neanderthal admixture to be dated to less than 200 years before the time he lived,” the authors write.

It's unlikely Oase 1 has any living relatives, they say. He doesn't bear more of a genetic likeness to later Europeans than he does to East Asians, which suggests that the population group he came from didn't contribute their genes to more recent inhabitants of Europe. “This guy might just be one part of the migration and doesn’t have descendants,” Fu says.

Further genetic research on early humans—modern, Neanderthal, or other—could clarify the picture. “We currently only have several early modern human genome-wide studies,” Fu says, “so it would be great to know more so we can understand better for our own history.”

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Peter Pfälzner, University of Tübingen
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Finally Identify a 4000-Year-Old Lost City in Iraq
Peter Pfälzner, University of Tübingen
Peter Pfälzner, University of Tübingen

In 2016, archaeologists excavating in the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan in Iraq discovered the remnants of a Bronze Age city near the modern village of Bassetki. It was large, and it appeared to have been occupied for more than 1000 years, from around 2200 to 1200 BCE. Ancient Mesopotamia, home to the earliest civilizations on Earth, had many cities. So which one was it?

The mystery remained until recently, when a language expert at the University of Heidelberg translated clay cuneiform tablets unearthed at the site in 2017. The archaeologists had discovered Mardaman, a once-important city mentioned in ancient texts, which had been thought lost to time.

The inscriptions were likely written around 1250 BCE when Mardaman (also called Mardama) was a part of the Assyrian Empire. According to the University of Tübingen archaeologists who unearthed the tablets, they describe the "administrative and commercial affairs" between the citizens of Mardaman and their Assyrian governor Assur-nasir. The account led the researchers to believe that the area where the tablets were recovered was once the governor's palace.

Excavation site in Iraq.
Peter Pfälzner, University of Tübingen

Situated on trade routes connecting Mesopotamia, Anatolia (modern Turkey), and Syria, Mardaman was a bustling commercial hub in its day. It was conquered and rebuilt several times, but after it was toppled by the Turukkaeans from the neighboring Zagros Mountains sometime in the 18th century BCE, it was never mentioned again in ancient texts. Experts had assumed that marked the end of Marmadan. This latest discovery shows that the city recovered from that dark period, and still existed 500 years later.

"The cuneiform texts and our findings from the excavations in Bassetki now make it clear that that was not the end," lead archeologist Peter Pfälzner said in a press statement. "The city existed continuously and achieved a final significance as a Middle Assyrian governor's seat between 1250 and 1200 BCE."

This lost chapter of history may never have been uncovered if the clay tablets were stored any other way. Archeologists found the 92 slabs in a pottery vessel that had been sealed with a thick layer of clay, perhaps to preserve the contents for future generations. The state in which they were found suggests they were stashed away shortly after the surrounding building was destroyed.

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Ben Curtis, AFP/Getty Images
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
King Tut's Tomb Doesn't Contain Hidden Rooms After All
Ben Curtis, AFP/Getty Images
Ben Curtis, AFP/Getty Images

When Howard Carter first entered King Tut's tomb in 1922, there was a lot to uncover. Unlike most royal tombs of the ancient Egyptian kings, Tut's had remained sealed and untouched for centuries, providing a pristine treasure trove for those who would eventually stumble upon it. Now, nearly a century later, archaeologists are accepting the idea that King Tut's tomb may have no more secrets left to reveal: New radar scans show that there are no hidden rooms beyond the main burial chamber, NBC News reports.

The theory that Tut's tomb contains secret rooms first emerged in 2015. British archaeologist Nicholas Reeves claimed that high-definition laser scans conducted by Japanese and American scientists hinted at the existence of a second tomb on the other side of the chamber's walls, and that the hidden tomb possibly belonged to Queen Nefertiti, Tutankhamun's stepmother. The theory sparked excitement in Egyptology circles, but its popularity was short-lived. Radar experts cast doubts on the research saying that what appeared to be a wall or a room could easily be a geologic feature. Archaeologists and Egyptologists began calling for more evidence.

The newest study on the matter will likely debunk the hidden tomb theory for good. According to findings by Italian researchers presented at the fourth International Tutankhamun Conference in Cairo, ground-penetrating radar shows conclusively that there are no hidden rooms or corridors adjacent to Tut's tomb. The new scan represents the most comprehensive radar survey of the area ever conducted.

Even without hidden rooms, Tut's tomb and the artifacts it contained make up one of the world's most impressive archaeological sites. The public will be able to view 4500 of the young ruler's possessions when they go on display at a new museum in Cairo in 2022.

[h/t NBC News]

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