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Mitochondria are the energy-producing machinery of our cells.
These mitochondria have their own DNA, which is separate from our nuclear DNA.
"Despite the large interval, these dates provide a temporal window for possible hominin connectivity and interaction across the two continents in the past," says Posth.
Schematic representation of the evolutionary scenario for mitochondrial and nuclear DNA in archaic and modern humans.
These hominins interbred with Neanderthals already present in Europe, leaving their mark on the Neanderthals' mitochondrial DNA.
The study, published today in Nature Communications, pushes back the possible date of this event to between 470,000 and 220,000 years ago.
Moreover, the mitochondrial DNA of Neanderthals is more similar to that of modern humans, and thus indicates a more recent common ancestor, than to that of their close nuclear relatives the Denisovans.
There has been debate about the cause of these discrepancies, and it has been proposed that a hominin migration out of Africa might have occurred prior to the major dispersal of modern humans.
However, more data was needed to evaluate the feasibility of this scenario and to define the temporal limits of the proposed event.Credit: Photo: Oleg Kuchar © Photo Museum Ulm The femur of a Neanderthal excavated from the Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave in southwestern Germany provided just such an opportunity.