Magazine article Science News

DNA Data Point to Unknown Hominid: Melanesians Carry Clues to Ancestor Not Revealed by Fossils

Magazine article Science News

DNA Data Point to Unknown Hominid: Melanesians Carry Clues to Ancestor Not Revealed by Fossils

Article excerpt

Traces of long-lost human cousins may be hiding in modern people's DNA, a new computer analysis suggests.

People from Melanesia, a South Pacific region encompassing Papua New Guinea and surrounding islands, may carry genetic evidence of a previously unknown extinct hominid, Ryan Bohlender reported October 20. That species is probably not Neandertal or Denisovan, but a different, related hominid group, said Bohlender, a statistical geneticist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. "We're missing a population or we're misunderstanding something about the relationships."

This mysterious relative was probably from a third branch of the hominid family tree that produced Neandertals and Denisovans, a distant cousin of Neandertals. While many Neandertal fossils have been found in Europe and Asia, Denisovans are known only from DNA from a finger bone and teeth found in a Siberian cave (SN: 12/12/15, p. 14).

Bohlender isn't the first to suggest that remnants of archaic human relatives may have been preserved in human DNA even though no fossil remains have been found. In 2012, another group suggested some people in Africa carry DNA heirlooms from an unknown extinct hominid species (SN: 9/8/12, p. 9).

Less than a decade ago, scientists discovered that human ancestors mixed with Neandertals. People of non-African descent still carry a small amount of Neandertal DNA: Bohlender's team calculates that European and Chinese people carry about 2.8 percent. Europeans have no hint of Denisovan ancestry, and people in China have a tiny amount--0.1 percent, according to Bohlender. But 2.74 percent of the DNA in people in Papua New Guinea comes from Neandertals. And Melanesians have about 1.11 percent Denisovan DNA, Bohlender estimates, not the 3 to 6 percent estimated by other researchers. …

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