Scientists have found evidence for a mysterious “ghost population” of ancient humans that lived in Africa about half a million years ago and whose genes live on in people today, The Guardian reports.
Traces of the unknown ancestor emerged when researchers analysed genomes from west African populations and found that up to a fifth of their DNA appeared to have come from the missing relatives.
Geneticists suspect that the ancestors of modern west Africans interbred with the yet-to-be-discovered archaic humans tens of thousands of years ago, much as ancient Europeans once mated with Neanderthals.
“In the west Africans we looked at, all have ancestry from this unknown archaic population,” said Sriram Sankararaman, a computational biologist who led the research at the University of California in Los Angeles.
Previous studies have hinted that other ancient humans once roamed Africa, but without any fossils or DNA to pore over, researchers have struggled to learn more about them.
Arun Durvasula and Sankararaman obtained 405 genomes from four west African populations and used statistical techniques to work out whether an influx of genes from interbreeding was likely to have happened in the distant past. The analysis suggested that it had in every case.
The scientists went on to scour the African genomes for chunks of DNA that looked different to modern human genes. This allowed them to pull out sequences that most probably came from an ancient relative. By comparing these with genes from Neanderthals and Denisovans, they concluded that the DNA had to come from an unknown group of archaic humans.
“They seem to have made a pretty substantial impact on the genomes of the present day individuals we studied,” Sankararaman said. “They account for 2% to 19% of their genetic ancestry.” The four populations studied came from three countries: two from Nigeria, and one each from Sierra Leone and the Gambia.