Scientists Discover Evidence of ‘Ghost Population’ of Ancient Humans in West Africa

A Homo neanderthalensis skull: The ghost population split from the ancestors of Neanderthals and modern humans between 360,000 and 1 million years ago.
Photograph: The Natural History Museum/Alamy Stock Photo

Scientists have found evidence for a mysterious “ghost population” of ancient humans that lived in Africa about half a million years ago and whose genes live on in people today.

Traces of the unknown ancestor emerged when researchers analysed genomes from west African populations and found that up to a fifth of their DNA appeared to have come from the missing relatives.

Geneticists suspect that the ancestors of modern west Africans interbred with the yet-to-be-discovered archaic humans tens of thousands of years ago, much as ancient Europeans once mated with Neanderthals.

“In the west Africans we looked at, all have ancestry from this unknown archaic population,” said Sriram Sankararaman, a computational biologist who led the research at the University of California in Los Angeles.

Unlike today, the world was once home to many related species or subspecies of human. And when they stumbled upon one another, mating was not out of the question. As a result, modern Europeans carry a smattering of Neanderthal genes, while indigenous Australians, Polynesians and Melanesians carry genes from Denisovans, another group of archaic humans.

Previous studies have hinted that other ancient humans once roamed Africa, but without any fossils or DNA to pore over, researchers have struggled to learn more about them.

Arun Durvasula and Sankararaman obtained 405 genomes from four west African populations and used statistical techniques to work out whether an influx of genes from interbreeding was likely to have happened in the distant past. The analysis suggested that it had in every case.

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SOURCE: The Guardian, Ian Sample