Scientists Find Clues of 'Ghost' Human Ancestor in West Africa

Scientists find evidence of 'ghost population' of ancient humans

Scientists find evidence of 'ghost population' of ancient humans

The discovery was announced by a team of researchers led by Sriram Sankararaman, a computational biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, in a new study published in Science Advances. Hidden deep in the DNA code of present-day humans is evidence of an extinct human species, detectable only by a few tell-tale genetic markers lingering in their ancestors.

Sharon Browning, a biostatistics professor at University of Washington who has studied the mixing of Denisovans and humans, says "the scenario that they are discovering here is one that seems realistic". The ghost hominids most likely separated from the common ancestor of modern humans and Neanderthals between 360,000 and 1 million years ago. Studying the genetic markers floating around the Homo sapiens DNA pool can shed light on where our ancestors made contact with other human subspecies.

It is unclear if West Africans derived any genetic benefits from this long-ago gene flow. The analysis suggested that it had in every case. However, the hypothesized "ghost population" of hominids in Africa left behind only DNA.

Researchers compared 405 genomes of West Africans with Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes and worked out whether there had been interbreeding among an unknown hominin whose ancestors split off from the human family tree before Neanderthals. Four West African groups - Yoruba in southwestern Nigeria, Esan in southern Nigeria, Gambians in western Gambia, and Mende in Sierra Leone - may derive 2% to 19% of their DNA from a ghost lineage, the researchers said. The group of perhaps 20,000 individuals then bred with the ancestors of modern west Africans at some point in the past 124,000 years. "But our findings are very exciting", said Sankararaman, who also is a member of UCLA's Bioinformatics Interdepartmental Program.

"There may have been multiple waves of mating over many thousands of years".

Several sequences stood out in comparison to other modern human genes, and they were isolated for further research.

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Asked what details are known about this population, Sankararaman said, "Not much at this stage".

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Okawa Foundation.

The scientists are now excited to dive into the ancient genes and work out what they do. They later expanded into Eurasia, where they interbred with both Neanderthals and Denisovans.

Although this is a simplified version of events - the separating and admixture of different populations and sub-species can be extremely muddled and complex - this is the most likely scenario that can be pieced together from the limited evidence. Now a new study suggests that another such group existed, one that has yet to be identified, reports the Guardian. "We now know that each Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA was deleterious basically however there have been some genes the place this DNA had an adaptive impression". It is tempting to speculate.

The study's authors say that these genetic differences are best explained by hybridisation with an unknown humanoid.

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