The earliest people were hunter-gatherers who hunted for food, and their brains are very similar to those of our species today. A study of Neanderthal DNA shows that the first human-like hominins emerged about 300,000 years ago, before we evolved into modern humans. Neanderthals lived in Europe, Asia and Africa around 200,000 years ago, and had brains about the same size as ours today.
The first humans did not mix with others, and their genes remain a mystery because they did not interbreed with their Neanderthal neighbours, suggesting they were isolated in their own kind for around 200,000 years. But this was not the end of the story, they went extinct 250,000 years ago, about as soon as modern humans emerged in Asia from Africa, which is when our own species emerged. Neanderthals and modern humans are very good at adapting to life under different conditions. It is only when we start adapting to new conditions that evolution really takes off.
They were adapted to living on the cold, icy continent of Eurasia, and we adapted to living on the humid, warm, tropical continent of Africa, and we’ve been adapting to the latter ever since. Scientists found that most of the Neanderthal DNA in our closest living relatives comes from two groups, the Saqqaq and Denisovan lineages. These lineages separated from the Neanderthal genome around 500,000 years ago, although not everyone carried the same DNA sequences.
But these lineages were very genetically distinct, and they diverged after around 70,000 years of divergence, so they are different from all of the other Neanderthal lineages. We know the ancestors of Saqqaq people and Denisovans diverged around 195,000 years ago, and then there was a period of about 75,000 years when they remained genetically distinct.
That’s when modern human gene flow started to happen, and they diverged for another 75,000 years before modern humans started to diversify around 300,000 years ago. Neanderthals were likely hunted to extinction by about 40,000 years ago. However, some of them survived to the present day, and as far as anyone can tell, they still have their DNA in us on a level of around 1 per cent.
They were just slightly different, and we were a little bit different than modern humans, so we all look a bit different. However, this may not indicate that there were different human types. There were likely multiple levels of hybridisation that allowed us to develop our morphology, and that is what we have found with all the different hybridisation that has happened on this planet over the last 100,000 years.
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