Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Neanderthal Range Extended

Nicholas Wade, working the paleoanthropology beat for the New York Times, reports again on Neanderthal DNA research. Svante Paabo at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany (where Steve's friend Laura Niven works) has recovered Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA from bones excavated from two sites in Central Asia:

"One is Teshik Tash, in Uzbekistan, some 750 miles east of the Caspian Sea and, until now, the easternmost known limit of Neanderthal territory. The other bones are from the Okladnikov cave in the Altai mountains, some 1,250 miles farther east.

This huge extension of the Neanderthal’s known range puts them well into southern Siberia.

Because the mitochondrial DNA sequence of the new finds differs only slightly from that of the European Neanderthals, Dr. Paabo believes that they may have moved into Siberia relatively late in the Neanderthal period, perhaps as recently as 127,000 years ago, when a warm period made Siberia more accessible."

As the article points out, this is a big step on two fronts of research. One is of course that the previously known range of Neanderthal populations has been expanded. But the second is that DNA analysis allows for the species identification of small fragments of bone. Previously Neanderthals (and other earlier hominids) could only be identified by skeletal morphology, which meant that a much larger percentage of the skeleton had to be recovered to positively identify the species. The article doesn't say it, but this new methodology opens the door for reanalysis of museum skeletal collections excavated over the last hundred years or so, potentially vastly increasing the known database on Neanderthal populations.

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