Were Neanderthals and Humans connected at some time in the past? This question is still up for debate, but recently the complete mitochondrial genome of a 38,000-year-old Neanderthal has been sequenced.
At the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany scientists have reconstructed the genome sequence. They sequenced the Neanderthal mitochondria—powerhouses of the cell with their own DNA including 13 protein-coding genes—nearly 35 times over. This coverage allowed them to sort out those differences between the Neanderthal and human genomes resulting from damage to the degraded DNA extracted from ancient bone versus true evolutionary changes.
This new sequence and its analysis confirms that the mitochondria of Neanderthals falls outside the variation found in humans today and it provides no evidence of integration between the two lineages although it remains a possibility. It also shows that the last common ancestor of Neanderthals and humans lived about 660,000 years ago, give or take 140,000 years.
The new sequence revealed that the Neanderthals have fewer evolutionary changes overall, but a greater number that alter the amino acid building blocks of proteins. This means that the Neanderthals had a smaller population size than humans do, which makes natural selection less effective in removing mutations.
That notion is consistent with arguments made by other scientists based upon the geological record. Anthropologists argue there were a few thousand Neanderthals that roamed over Europe 40,000 years ago. That smaller population might have been the result of the smaller size of Europe compared to Africa. Another geological issue was that the Neanderthals also would have had to deal with repeated glaciations.