DNA from a 40,000-year-old pinkie finger, belonging to a child and found in a cave in Siberia, indicates that the bone is from a previously unknown family of human relatives that lived among Neanderthals and modern humans, German researchers reported Wednesday.
The discovery, if confirmed, would mark the first time that an entirely new species of hominid has been identified solely on the basis of DNA sequencing, the team reported online in the journal Nature.
With the recent, and still controversial, discovery of the Hobbitt-like species Homo floriensis that survived in Indonesia until about 13,000 years ago, the evidence now indicates that at least four species of human-like creatures walked the Earth at the same time.
Based on the DNA sequences, the new species shared a common ancestor with both modern humans and Neanderthals about 1 million years ago, according to the team led by anthropologists Johannes Krause and Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. That is about 500,000 years older than the last common ancestor shared by Neanderthals and modern humans.
"I like it because it makes us sort of a normal mammal," said Todd R. Disotell, an anthropologist at New York University's Center for the Study of Human Origins, who was not involved in the research. "At every other phase of evolutionary history, there has always been multiple species at any one time," both for humans and other species. "We just happen to be the last one standing."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.