It has for some time been difficult to assess the eastern limit of classic “Neanderthals.” Some have claimed that Neanderthals were limited to western Asia, others that they extended across much of Asia. The fossil remains themselves have been difficult to interpret. One reason for this is that Neanderthals are not different enough from other contemporary hominids to assert a similarity or difference for a particular fossil, unless you have enough of it, and the fossil record in Central Asia and East Asia for the relevant time period is a bit dicey. Most people agree that fossil material known from Uzbekistan is Neanderthal. That’s not very far east. Beyond that, there is only controversy and mystery.
Until now, perhaps…
A study about to be released in Nature
The localities in question are known as Teshik Tash and Okladnikov. The resarch teme took material from postcranial material to compare with the currently known sample of 13 European Neanderthals. This previously studied sample, in turn, is known to be genetically distinct from modern humans to the extent that modern humans contemporary with Neanderthals, and the Neanderthals, should be considered as distinctly different populations. (You can decide that this means that they were different species if you want. Or not. Either way you have a reasonable chance of being right. Or wrong.)
The results of this research indicate that the Altai material belongs to the Neanderthal population.
The research team concludes:
The similarity of the Okladnikov and Teshik Tash mtDNA sequences to mtDNA determined from Neanderthals in Europe and the Caucasus, in conjunction with the absence of Neanderthal-like mtDNA from the more than 10,000 modern humans studied so far as well as from early modern humans, indicates that the Teshik Tash and Okladnikov individuals belonged to a population related to European and western Asian Neanderthals. This agrees with morphological evidence that the Teshik Tash hominid is of Neanderthal origin and the suggestion that the subadult Okladnikov individual is related to Neanderthals on the basis of the morphology of teeth found in association with the bones8. The geographical range of Neanderthals therefore seems to have extended at least 2,000 km farther east into southern Siberia than has generally been assumed.