Oldest Known Human Viruses Discovered In 50,000-Year-Old Neanderthal Bones

Genetic analysis of 50,000-year-old Neanderthal skeletons has uncovered the remnants of three viruses related to modern human pathogens.

Oldest Known Human Viruses Discovered In 50,000-Year-Old Neanderthal Bones

Evidence suggests Neanderthals shared susceptibility to common human viruses.

A new discovery sheds light on the ongoing mystery surrounding the extinction of Neanderthals, our closest extinct relatives. Researchers have found evidence of ancient viruses in 50,000-year-old Neanderthal bones, potentially offering a missing piece in the puzzle.

Previously, scientists theorised that infectious diseases might have played a role in the Neanderthals' demise. However, direct evidence was lacking due to the difficulty of extracting and sequencing ancient DNA.

This new study, led by molecular biologist Marcelo Briones, changes that. By analysing DNA samples from Neanderthal skeletons unearthed in Russia's Chagyrskaya cave, Briones' team identified fragments resembling three modern viruses: adenovirus (common colds), herpesvirus (cold sores), and papillomavirus (genital warts).

"To support this interesting hypothesis," Briones told New Scientist's James Woodford, "it would be necessary to prove that at least the genomes of these viruses can be found in Neanderthal remains. That is what we did."

These findings, however, are still preliminary. The viral fragments suggest a "possible presence" of ancient viruses, and the research itself awaits peer review after being posted on the bioRxiv preprint server.

While the exact impact of these viruses on Neanderthals remains unknown, the discovery opens doors for further investigation. It also highlights the limitations of previous extinction theories that solely focused on factors like environmental changes or competition with humans.

The researchers acknowledge that a combination of factors likely led to the Neanderthals' disappearance. Future studies exploring these viruses and other potential contributors could bring us closer to understanding this pivotal moment in human history.