New research into ancient genomes unveiled at the Royal Society in London has revealed a startling secret: We have an unknown, mysterious human relative that used to live in Asia.
Scientists made the discovery while sequencing the genomes of the Neanderthals and Denisovans, two archaic human groups that interbred with Homo sapiens over 30,000 years ago. Results of the sequencing show that these groups interbred more than previously known, contributing to the genetic diversity of modern humans. And then there's the third group, a mystery human species. "What it begins to suggest is that we're looking at a Lord of the Rings-type world," Mark Thomas, an evolutionary geneticist who attended the conference in London, told Nature, "that there were many hominid populations."
You know the discovery's nuts when the geneticists start invoking Tolkien. The latest research adds to earlier, error-ridden sequencing of the archaic human groups and brings some clarity to the field of evolutionary genetics. We've also recently learned that genetic diversity isn't necessarily a great thing. Around the same time as the conference, a team of U.K. scientists published a paper on how an ancient retrovirus caused changes to Neanderthal DNA and was eventually passed on to modern humans. Curiously, those who were shown to have traces of the ancient retrovirus also have cancer.
As methods for sequencing genomes becomes better, we'll surely learn more about not only Neanderthals but also this new mystery species. For now, details are scares. In the words of one of the conference goers, a paleoanthropologist, "We don't have the faintest idea."