Has AI found a new human ancestor? Evidence of extinct hominid spotted by algorithm

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Researchers have identified what may be a previously unknown human ancestor, thanks to the help of artificial intelligence.

A new investigation into the genome of Asian populations has spotted the footprint of a long-ago hominid that appears to have been bred from two different species of human ancestor – Neanderthal and Denisovan.

This ancient hominid, who lived tens of thousands of years ago, then bred with modern humans who arrived to Asia after the ‘Out of Africa’ migration.

 

It comes just months after a different team revealed the discovery of a hybrid ‘love child’ born from a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father.

And, the new research from the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (IBE), Centro Nacional de Análisis Genómico (CNAG-CRG) of the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG), and the Institute of Genomics at the University of Tartu suggests such hominid hybrids may not have been all that uncommon after all.

This newly discovered hominid, identified using deep learning algorithms, suggests ancient species were interbreeding with modern humans tens of thousands of years ago.

‘About 80,000 years ago, the so-called Out of Africa occurred, when part of the human population, which already consisted of modern humans, abandoned the African continent and migrated to other continents, giving rise to all the current populations,’ says Jaume Bertranpetit, principal investigator at the IBE and head of Department at the UPF.

‘We know that from that time onwards, modern humans cross bred with Neanderthals in all the continents, except Africa, and with the Denisovans in Oceania and probably in South-East Asia, although the evidence of cross-breeding with a third extinct species had not been confirmed with any certainty.’

According to the researchers, modern DNA reflects the intermingling that took place so many millennia ago.

But until recently, it was difficult to explain the origin of fragments within the human genome that suggest the existence of a ‘third ancestor.’

The deep learning technique has now allowed researchers to pinpoint these transitions within the populations.

The algorithm ‘imitates the way in which the nervous system of mammals works, with different artificial neurons that specialize and learn to detect, in data, patterns that are important for performing a given task,’ explains Òscar Lao, principal investigator at the CNAG-CRG.

‘Whenever we run a simulation we are travelling along a possible path in the history of humankind.

‘Of all simulations, deep learning allows us to observe what makes the ancestral puzzle fit together.’

According to the researchers, the previously unknown extinct hominid likely descended from the Neanderthal and Denisovan populations as a result of interbreeding between the two.

‘Our theory coincides with the hybrid specimen discovered recently in Denisova,’ said Mayukh Mondal, an investigator from the University of Tartu.

But, the researcher says, ‘as yet we cannot rule out another possibility.’

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