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Researchers Found Evidence of a Human Ancestor We’ve Never Discovered Before

Seems our ancient ancestors were gettin’ jiggy with lots of other hominin species. 

 

It sounds unseemly. Our early ancestors were having trysts with members of lots of other hominin species. 20% or more of the Neanderthal genome may be found in a large swath of modern humans today. If you suffer from seasonal allergies for instance, you may be part Neanderthal. More recently, we’ve found Denisovan genes are still present as well. This archaic hominin was discovered in 2008.


Two tiny fossils, a molar and a pinky bone the size of a coffee bean, were excavated from Denisova cave in Siberia. The pinky bone was from a young girl, somewhere between the ages of five and seven. Scientists believe based on the genetic information found that she had brown skin, eyes, and hair.  

Researchers were able to sequence the DNA, and so compare Denisovans to Neanderthals and humans. Turns out, it isn’t only Neanderthal DNA that’s being carried around today. 3-5% of Papua New Guineans carry Denisovan genes. It’s prominent among the Melanesian there.

Melanesian children. Getty Images.  

It’s thought the Melanesian's early ancestors and the Denisovans must have met somewhere in Eurasia, perhaps in Siberia. The Melanesians traveled for sometime afterward. Until 45,000 years-ago, when they sailed across the Pacific to the island nation they inhabit today.

We know that humans, Neanderthals, and Denisovans had a common ancestor named Homo heidelbergensis, who lived 700,000 to 200,000 years ago. H. heidelbergensis had a short, wide body which preserved heat. As such, it was the first hominin who was able to live in colder climates.

H. heidelbergensis was no slouch. It used spears for hunting and had fire. It was also the first to make shelters out of rocks or stones, and the first to hunt large game. Somewhere around 300,000 to 400,000 years ago, a group of them migrated out of Africa. Sometime after that, it split off into Neanderthals and Denisovans. While Neanderthals settled in Europe and Western Asia, Denisovans migrated to central and Southeast Asia, traveling as far as the Pacific Islands and even Australia.

Somewhere around 130,000 years ago our ancestors, Homo sapiens, came onto the scene. Although, new evidence may push their arrival much farther back, to 300,000 years ago, according to a newly discovered skull, excavated from a cave in Morocco last June. Supposedly, humans didn’t start migrating out of Africa in large numbers until 125,000-60,000 years ago. Some scholars believe a smaller, earlier migration took place before the larger one.  

Hominin migration as we understand it today. Wikipedia Commons.

That’s pretty much our understanding at this point. In recent years, early human and hominin history has endured a seismic shakeup of new discoveries and whole disciplines are struggling to keep up. For instance, the remains of pre-human from 7.2 million years ago were recently unearthed in the Balkans and Greece. What this means for our evolutionary timeline, we don’t yet know.

Now a team of experts, led by two professors at the University of Buffalo, report findings that fragment our understanding even further. They’ve isolated a gene from an ancient hominin species we’ve never encountered before. It’s some kind of genetic missing link. The gene known as MUC7 is present in the saliva of all humans. But it’s radically different from one lineage to the next.

Members of this “ghost” species as it‘s being called, mated with the ancestors of certain humans, living in Sub-Saharan Africa, way before others got it on with Neanderthals and Denisovans. Of course, genes really make proteins, which make up everything else. "About 5 to 7 percent of every population in sub-Saharan Africa has this divergent protein," Dr. Omer Gokcumen said. He’s an assistant professor of biological sciences in the University at Buffalo.

He and a colleague, Professor Stefan Ruhl, DDS, PhD, of the School of Dental Medicine, led the study. The results were published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution. Dr. Gokcumen said that rather than the exception, early hominin admixing or interbreeding, seems to have been the norm.

H. heidelbergensis. Flickr.

“Our research traced the evolution of an important mucin protein called MUC7 that is found in saliva,” he said. “When we looked at the history of the gene that codes for the protein, we see the signature of archaic admixture in modern day Sub-Saharan African populations.”

MUC7 is the gene which produces mucin, the substance that makes saliva thick and sticky. As such, it binds to microbes in an effort to protect the body from infection.  Not all of the MUC7 genes are the same, however. It is these variations which can help scientists untangle the different strains leading to different lineages.

Researchers examined MUC7 within the genomes of 2,500 participants. Those from Sub-Saharan Africa had a type that varied considerably from those from other regions. The gene was so different in fact, Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes were more closely aligned with ours more than this variety. The evolutionary path of us and this “ghost” ancestor split 500,000 to 2.5 million years ago. Our ancestors are thought to have admixed with them somewhere between 200,000 and 150,000 years ago.

Dr. Gokcumen said:

Based on our analysis, the most plausible explanation for this extreme variation is archaic introgression — the introduction of genetic material from a ‘ghost’ species of ancient hominins. This unknown human relative could be a species that has been discovered, such as a subspecies of Homo erectus, or an undiscovered hominin. We call it a ‘ghost’ species because we don’t have the fossils.

Mating with other species may have served an evolutionary purpose. For instance, Neanderthals were already well suited for the cold weather by the time humans got to Europe and Western Asia. Mating with them passed along those genetic advantages to the offspring. 

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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

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  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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