For a field that relies on fossils that have lain undisturbed for tens of thousands of years, ancient human genomics is moving at breakneck speed. Barely a year after the publication of the genomes of Neanderthals1
and of an extinct human population from Siberia,2
scientists are racing to apply the work to answer questions about human evolution and history that would have been unfathomable just a few years ago.
The past months have seen a swathe of discoveries, from details about when Neanderthals and humans interbred, to the important disease-fighting genes that humans now have as a result of those trysts.
Neanderthals were large-bodied hunter-gatherers, named after the German valley where their bones were first discovered, who roamed Europe and parts of Asia from 400,000 years ago until about 30,000 years ago. The Neanderthal genome - shepherded by Svante Pääbo at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany - indicates that their evolutionary story began to split from the lineage of modern humans less than half a million years ago, when their common ancestor lived in Africa (see 'The human strain'
). In December last year, Pääbo's team released the genetic blueprint of another population of ancient humans - unlike ourselves or the Neanderthals - that was based on DNA recovered from a 30,000 - 50,000-year-old finger bone found in a cave in Denisova in southern Siberia.2
Palaeoanthropologists call these groups archaic humans, distinguishing them from modern Homo sapiens,
which emerged in Africa only around 200,000 years ago.