WASHINGTON — We have met Neanderthal and he is us — at least a little.
The most detailed look yet at the Neanderthal genome helps answer one of the most debated questions in anthropology: Did Neanderthals and modern humans mate?
The answer is yes, there is at least some cave man biology in most of us. Between 1 and 4 percent of genes in people from Europe and Asia trace back to Neanderthals.
"They live on, a little bit," says Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
Researchers led by Paabo, Richard Green of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and David Reich of Harvard Medical School compared the genetic material collected from the bones of three Neanderthals with that from five modern humans.
Their findings, reported in today's edition of the journal Science, show a relationship between Neanderthals and modern people outside Africa, Paabo said.
That suggests that interbreeding occurred in the Middle East, where both modern humans and Neanderthals lived thousands of years ago, he said.
"People are interested in the question: 'By what route did I get here?' And the idea that there is a faint echo of Neanderthals" is interesting, reflected Richard Potts, director of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.
"I'm really impressed by the nuance they've been able to pick up," said Potts, who was not part of the research group. "The papers are a really good antidote to the all-or-nothing findings of previous studies."
Humans trace their origins out of Africa into the Middle East and then on to other parts of the world. The genetic relationship with Neanderthals was found in people from Europe, China and Papua-New Guinea, but not people from Africa.
Todd Disotell, an anthropologist at New York University, suggested that more Africans should be sampled.
"My guess is, as we sample more Africans we're going to find some of these old lineages in Africa," said Disotell, who was not part of the research team.