Western Asia is the most likely spot where modern humans first encountered and had sexual rendezvous with a different hominid species - the Neanderthals, a study suggests.
When the ancestors of modern humans migrated out of Africa, they passed through the Middle East and Turkey before heading deeper into Asia and Europe. At this important crossroads, it is thought that they encountered and had sexual rendezvous with the Neanderthals.
Genomic evidence shows that this ancient interbreeding occurred, and Western Asia is the most likely spot where it happened.
Researchers at the University at Buffalo (UB) in the US explored the legacy of these interspecies trysts, with a focus on Western Asia, where the first relations may have occurred. The research, published in the journal Genome Biology and Evolution, analysed the genetic material of people living in the region today, identifying DNA sequences inherited from Neanderthals.
"As far as human history goes, this area was the stepping stone for the peopling of all of Eurasia," said Omer Gokcumen, assistant professor at UB College of Arts and Sciences. "This is where humans first settled when they left Africa. It may be where they first met Neanderthals. From the standpoint of genetics, it is a very interesting region," said Gokcumen.
Scientists analysed 16 genomes belonging to people of Turkish descent. "Within these genomes, the areas where we see relatively common Neanderthal introgression are in genes related to metabolism and immune system responses," said Recep Ozgur Taskent, a PhD candidate at UB. "Broadly speaking, these are functions that can have an impact on health," said Taskent.
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For example, one DNA sequence that originated from Neanderthals includes a genetic variant linked to celiac disease. Another includes a variant tied to a lowered risk of malaria. The relations that our ancestors had with Neanderthals tens of thousands of years ago may continue to exert an influence on our well-being today, Gokcumen said.
In addition to exploring the specific functions of genetic material that the Turkish population inherited from Neanderthals, the study also examined the Neanderthals' influence on human populations in Western Asia more broadly.
However, the research shows that people living in this area today have relatively little Neanderthal DNA compared to people in other parts of the world. The team analysed genomic data from dozens of Western Asian individuals and observed that, on average, with a few exceptions, these populations carry less Neanderthal DNA than Europeans, Central Asians and East Asians.
The differences in Neanderthal ancestry between Western Asian and other populations may be due to the region's unique position in human history, Taskent added.