With his stocky build, sloping forehead and massive beetle brows, this primitive hominid never appeared the most attractive of ancestors. Now the first analysis of DNA material from a Neanderthal skeleton provides powerful evidence that the species was part of a separate evolutionary branch.
The results are a considerable boost to the anthropological theory that human beings originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago and then colonised Asia and Europe, displacing other species. But they will infuriate proponents of the rival hypothesis, that our forefathers left Africa about two million years ago and migrated to other continents, where they evolved into Homo Sapiens. Heated and at times vitriolic debate has raged between the two camps for the past decade.
The research, which is published in the American science journal Cell was carried out by a team at the University of Munich's Zoological Institute. Their subject was a skeleton fossil discovered in the Neander Valley, near Dusseldorf, in 1856, and regarded as the prototype Neanderthal specimen. The scientists took a tiny fragment of bone from the fossil, which is estimated to be between 30,000 and 100,000 years old. For the first time, they performed the highly difficult task of retrieving a genetic sample from an extinct species. The DNA that they analysed was so different from that of modern humans that any direct link between us and Neanderthal Man appears to be ruled out.
Professor Svante Paabo, head of the Munich team, told a press conference in London yesterday that although the two hominids co-existed in Europe and the Middle East for a period, their last common ancestor probably dated from more than half a million years ago. While the precursors of modern humans thrived and flourished, Neanderthal Man evolved separately, reaching an evolutionary dead-end about 30,000 years ago. "The results clearly lend support to the theory that we all came out of Africa quite recently in history," said Professor Paabo.
Chris Stringer, of the Natural History Museum, one of the world's leading palaeontologists, hailed the work of the Munich scientists as a tour de force. "In palaeontological terms, this is the equivalent of landing the Pathfinder on Mars and getting it to work," he said. "The Neanderthals were very human-like, but that does not make them our ancestors."