We have been learning a lot about Neanderthals in the past few years, particularly about how they left genetic evidence that they interbred with modern humans. You may be surprised to learn that most of that knowledge came from sequencing the genes of four Neanderthals, only one of whom had DNA good enough to identify variations in the genome. But now there is another- a Neanderthal woman found in Croatia who died 52,000 years ago has yielded a full genome to study. Scientists named her Vindija 33.19. And that process highlights the difficulty in hanging assumptions on Neanderthals from such a small sample size.
Based on previous archaeological and genetic evidence, archaeologists and anthropologists suspected that Neanderthals were thinly dispersed across Europe and Asia. The lack of genetic diversity (low heterozygosity) in the Vindija 33.19 specimen affirms these earlier findings, showing that Neanderthals “lived in small and isolated populations” and “with an effective population size of around 3,000 individuals,” the researchers write in their study.
The earlier genomic analysis of the female Altai Neanderthal showed that her parents were half-siblings, which got scientists thinking that Neanderthals made it a habit of breeding with immediate family members. But the Vindija 33.19 genome is different; her parents were not as closely related, so we can no longer say that extreme inbreeding is a common fixture of the Neanderthals. That said, the Croatian Neanderthal shared a maternal ancestor with three other individuals found in the Vindija Cave (whose genomes aren’t nearly as complete).
No, we shouldn't assume anything is common about a culture from a sample size of one. However, the new genome shows that modern humans carry a few more Neanderthal genes than we previously thought, and that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals crossbred as far back as 100,000 years ago. Read more about Vindija 33.19 and the new findings at Gizmodo.
(Image credit: Neozoon)