- A long-reigning theory of the origin of Homo sapiens holds that our species arose in a single locale—sub-Saharan Africa—and replaced archaic human species, such as the Neandertals, without interbreeding with them.
- But recent studies of modern and ancient DNA indicate that these modern humans from Africa did mate with archaic humans and hint that this interbreeding helped H. sapiens thrive as it colonized new lands.
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It is hard to imagine today, but for most of humankind's evolutionary history, multiple humanlike species shared the earth. As recently as 40,000 years ago, Homo sapiens lived alongside several kindred forms, including the Neandertals and tiny Homo floresiensis. For decades scientists have debated exactly how H. sapiens originated and came to be the last human species standing. Thanks in large part to genetic studies in the 1980s, one theory emerged as the clear front-runner. In this view, anatomically modern humans arose in Africa and spread out across the rest of the Old World, completely replacing the existing archaic groups. Exactly how this novel form became the last human species on the earth is mysterious. Perhaps the invaders killed off the natives they encountered, or outcompeted the strangers on their own turf, or simply reproduced at a higher rate. However it happened, the newcomers seemed to have eliminated their competitors without interbreeding with them.
This recent African Replacement model, as it is known, has essentially served as the modern human origins paradigm for the past 25 years. Yet mounting evidence indicates that it is wrong. Recent advances in DNA-sequencing technology have enabled researchers to dramatically scale up data collection from living people as well as from extinct species. Analyses of these data with increasingly sophisticated computational tools indicate that the story of our family history is not as simple as most experts thought. It turns out that people today carry DNA inherited from Neandertals and other archaic humans, revealing that early H. sapiens mated with these other species and produced fertile offspring who were able to hand this genetic legacy down through thousands of generations. In addition to upsetting the conventional wisdom about our origins, the discoveries are driving new inquiries into how extensive the interbreeding was, which geographical areas it occurred in and whether modern humans show signs of benefiting from any of the genetic contributions from our prehistoric cousins.
This article was originally published with the title Human Hybrids.