A row of bone fragments.

Bone fragments that represent the daughter of a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan fatherCredit: Thomas Higham, University of Oxford

Roughly 90,000 years ago, a Neanderthal female mated with a Denisovan male and gave birth to a daughter — the earliest known offspring of two distinct hominin groups. The researchers who sequenced her genome from a bone fragment found in a cave announced the discovery in August 2018 (V. Slon et al. Nature 561, 113–116; 2018).

Scientists knew from DNA evidence that the two extinct groups of humans must have interbred, but they had never found a first-generation offspring before. The closest they had come was finding a Homo sapiens specimen that had Neanderthal ancestry from four to six generations previously.

Viviane Slon and Svante Pääbo, palaeogeneticists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, were part of the team that made the hybrid DNA discovery, which provides new insights into the lives of ancient hominins. “It tells us that these groups interacted more than we thought,” says Slon, who earned her PhD at the institute and is the first author on the paper.

Ancient DNA

A team from the Russian Academy of Sciences excavated the bones from a cave in the Altai Mountains of Russia, and researchers from the University of Oxford and University of Manchester in the United Kingdom used mass spectroscopy to examine the remains for signs of human proteins. They were then passed to Slon and Pääbo’s institute for DNA sequencing. Pääbo has been working with the Russian Academy for a long time, Slon says, and his lab has developed techniques to deal with the special challenges of ancient DNA, which degrades over time and has gone through certain chemical modifications. In addition to its department of evolutionary genetics, where Slon and Pääbo are based, the institute has departments of primatology, of human evolution and of human behaviour, ecology and culture, and interdepartmental collaborations have helped scientists to piece together pictures of ancient humans from different lines of evidence. “You can tackle questions from different angles, so I think that’s why the institute is quite well known,” Slon says.

Slon, who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Tel Aviv in Israel, says she applied to do her doctoral studies in Leipzig specifically because she wanted to work with Pääbo, who is Swedish. She says that the institute is international in nature, with researchers from many countries, and gives her the freedom to pursue her interests as well as travel to conferences and anthropological sites. Although Slon doesn’t speak German, she notes that this hasn’t caused many difficulties and that the institute has given her help with various tasks, such as finding an apartment. “There’s a lot of people here who help out for the research but also for your personal life, even if you don’t speak the language.”