Ancient Europeans and Americans
Some of Europe’s Oldest-Known Modern Humans Are Distantly Related to Native Americans
Genome sequencing shows some individuals share family ties with surprising populations, and all boast plenty of Neanderthal relatives
Scientists excavated bones at Bacho Kiro Cave in Bulgaria. Four modern human bones were recovered from this layer along with a rich stone tool assemblage, animal bones, bone tools and pendants. Tsenka Tsanova, MPI-EVA Leipzig
Forty-five thousand years ago, some of the first modern humans to call Europe home lived in and around Bulgaria’s Bacho Kiro Cave. They created adornments, like beads and pendants of cave bear teeth. They fashioned stone and bone tools and colored them with red ochre. They hunted, butchered and feasted on local animals. Artifacts of this lifestyle were left scattered in the cave, but these ancient humans left little evidence of themselves. Just a single tooth and a few tiny bits of bone survived to the present day. Yet those fragments contained enough genetic material that scientists have now recreated some of the humans’ stories, revealing surprising information about both their ancestors and their descendants.
Two genetic sequencing studies published in different journals this have sketched out the family trees of Europe’s earliest known modern humans, three 45,000-year-old individuals from Bacho Kiro Cave and one similarly aged skull from a Czechian hill. Only the Bacho Kiro individuals have living descendants and they’re found in surprising places—in East Asia and the Americas. The ancient humans from both ancient European sites do share one common ancestral strain—a healthy dose of Neanderthal DNA. Among the Bacho Kiro humans, evidence seems to show that when modern humans moved into Europe they commingled with Neanderthals longer, and later, than is commonly believed.
In 2015, scientists working in the Bulgarian cave found human fossils along with thousands of bones from butchered animals, and an assemblage of Paleolithic artifacts. A single molar stood out as unmistakably human, but the rest of the bones were broken bits that had to be identified as human by using protein mass spectrometry, which can spot uniquely human protein sequences not found in bones of other species. The human bones were then radiocarbon-dated to between 42,580 and 45,930 years before present. Researchers also produced tiny bits of tooth and bone powder from which they could extract DNA and sequence the genomes of three different individuals who once called the cave home.
While their age suggests these individuals were among the earliest modern humans to live in Europe, their DNA reveals that they have little relation to humans now known as European.
It’s really cool that fossils of three individuals in Bulgaria left behind DNA, and can trace their descendants to different parts of the world than we’d expect, in ancient and living East Asians and Native peoples of the Americas.
The genome study also shows that a thick branch on the Bacho Kiro humans’ family tree belongs to the Neanderthals. The individuals carry 3 to 3.8 percent Neanderthal DNA in their genes, which suggests more than a one-off mating far back in their family history. In fact, the genomes show that these European humans had Neanderthal ancestors just six or fewer generations back.
“The Bacho Kiro Cave individuals provide further evidence that the admixture with Neanderthals must have been common when they had a chance to meet, since all of them had Neanderthal ancestors very recently in their family histories,” Hajdinjak says.
Prüfer and co-authors of a new study speculate that because the strands of surviving Neanderthal DNA are longer than those in a very old existing modern human genome, the 45,000-year-old Ust’-Ishim individual known from Siberia, this individual could be of similar age or even older.
Unlike with the individuals at Bacho Kiro, DNA analysis hasn’t been able to shed much light on what happened to this group of humans who lived in ancient Czechia. “It looks like its own little branch of the populations that trace their ancestry to those people who left Africa 50,000 to 60,000 years ago,” Prüfer says. “We don’t really detect any directly descended populations among people who are living. Why did they not leave their mark?”
Genetic studies suggest that the Europe of this era was the scene of a complex set of early migrations in which unrelated, distinct groups of early humans split off from the common ancestors who left Africa. They settled across Europe and encountered the Neanderthals already living there.
Not all fossil humans represent ancestors of living populations, or populations that left genetic descendants. That may be more the rule than the exception and the genomics is really highlighting that.
Interbreeding between humans and Neanderthals may not have been all that exceptional either, during the several thousand years that the two species coexisted in Europe.
It’s not known exactly where, when, or how often our early human ancestors commingled with Neanderthals. Often, the interbreeding wasn’t successful for Neanderthals; most of their genetic variants didn’t stay around. But Stringer theorizes that early modern populations could have acted like sponges, occasionally absorbing pockets of Neanderthals though limited local interbreeding in places like Eastern Europe. Perhaps that helped to cause the demise of Neanderthals as a viable population, but they didn’t completely disappear.
After all there is a group of Neanderthals that are among our ancestors. So it’s not entirely correct to say they died out.