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DNA traces of unknown ancient human species found in West Africa

A new study of skeleton DNA in West Africa found that that many shared a common ancestor of an unknown ancient ‘ghost’ population

A reconstructed Neanderthal skeleton, right, and a modern human version of a skeleton at the Museum of Natural History in New York City.
A reconstructed Neanderthal skeleton, right, and a modern human version of a skeleton at the Museum of Natural History in New York City.
Frank Franklin Ii, Associated Press

Before there was modern man, there were multiple archaic species of humans, the Guardian reports. The most commonly known are the Neanderthals and Denisovans, but a new study reveals there is likely another, yet to be revealed early ancestor to man.

A recent study done by UCLA researchers Arun Durvasula and Sriram Sankararaman revealed that the gene pool of many modern West Africans, when compared to genomes from Neanderthals and Denisovans, point to a common extinct “ghost” ancestor, Science Alert reports.

The DNA from this ghost population makes up between 2%-19% of the genetic ancestry in modern West Africans.

The four populations studied came from Nigeria, Sierra Leone and the Gambia.

According to CNN, “Researchers compared 405 genomes of West Africans with Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes, and worked out whether there had been interbreeding among an unknown hominin whose ancestors split off from the human family tree before Neanderthals. Data suggests this may have involved multiple populations.”

The unknown archaic human population likely lived in West Africa between 360,000 to 1 million years ago and mated across species with the ancestors to modern man, CNN reports.

The researchers are speculating that fossils found in the in 2011 in Iwo Eleru, Nigeria, could possibly be members of this mystery species. But those fossils are too old and the DNA has degraded too much due to the hot climate in the area for successful DNA extraction using current methods, reports the The New York Times.

“I think at one time, there’d have been all sorts of populations, with genetics different enough to look a bit different,” Joel D. Irish, a professor of bioarchaeology at Liverpool John Moores University, told CNN.

Irish believes that this is the first out of many future discoveries of “ghost” populations.