The first complete genome of a Neanderthal — specifically, the mitochondrial DNA found in a 38,000-year-old bone — has been sequenced. The highly accurate sequence contains clues that our relatives lived in small, isolated populations, and probably did not interbreed with their human neighbours. “This is the first ‘finished’ genome sequence of an extinct human relative,” says the study’s lead scientist, Ed Green, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
Analysis of the DNA, taken from a bone fragment from the Vindija Cave in Croatia, puts the date of our last common ancestor at around 660,000 years ago, give or take 140,000 years. This is broadly in line with other estimates based on archaeology. The research, published in Cell, is a taster for the unveiling later this year of the complete Neanderthal nuclear genome sequence — which many hope will reveal the key genetic changes that propelled the evolution of human behaviour.