January 21, 2001
About 10 kilometers east of Dusseldorf in Germany, in the valley
of the Dussel, there is a little town called Neander. One hundred
and forty-one years ago, in the summer of 1856, some workmen
broke into a cave to get at the limestone inside and discovered a
set of ancient bones.
Most of the bones were smashed to bits by
the workmen, but some of the bones, including part of the skull,
survived, and the skeleton was soon recognized by anthropologists
as belonging to an ancient race of men who came to be known as
A Neanderthal fossil had actually been
discovered some years earlier in Gibraltar, but not recognized as
such. Neanderthal-like fossils have also been found in France,
Spain, Italy, Yugoslavia, Iraq, China, Java, and Israel.
than a century, one of the central questions in paleoanthropology
has been whether modern man evolved from this race -- or was the
Neanderthal a separate branch that became extinct? Until
recently, the primary laboratory method of investigation of such
a question was analysis of the morphology of bone fragments.
week, the field of paleoanthropology has apparently crossed an
important watershed, as M. Krings et al (University of Munich,
DE; Pennsylvania State University, US) report the first analysis
of DNA from an extinct human, in this case DNA extracted from the
actual Neanderthal skeleton found near Dusseldorf in 1856.
key to the investigation was the analysis of mitochondrial rather
than nuclear DNA. Mitochondrial DNA is usually present in
concentrations two or three orders of magnitude greater than
nuclear DNA, and they were able to find enough of it still intact
to amplify with the PCR technique and piece together a total DNA
sequence of 379 base pairs. Comparison of this sequence with
contemporary human sequences leads to the conclusion that
Neanderthal and modern man are separate evolutionary lines, and
that the latter did not evolve from the former.
The work will
have to be replicated with other Neanderthal fossils, but most
paleoanthropologists are excited by the results and expect them
to be confirmed. The technology of evolutionary paleoanthropology
has evidently now progressed from caliper measurements of bones
to measurements of bone DNA fragments.
(Cell 11 Jul 97) (Science-Week 18 Jul 97)
NET HUNTERS / Y CHROM. EVIDENCE / NEANDERTHAL DNA
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