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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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A new "species" of human?

Genetic diversity within the Neanderthals is a more likely explanation

Woke to find the newspapers all claiming a new "species" of human being discovered in central Asia. Here's the Guardian:

"The finding suggests an undocumented human species lived alongside Neanderthals and early modern humans in parts of Asia as recently as 30,000 years ago."

Leave aside the fact that it's just a bone from a little finger, leave aside the fact that they have only sequenced some mitochondrial DNA, not nuclear DNA. Assume, for the sake of argument, that they have ruled out contamination. Applaud - as we should - the achievement of recovering DNA from the fossil and sequencing it.

But don't call it a new species yet. It's far more likely that it just shows genetic diversity within the Neanderthals, of roughly the same depth as is found within existing chimpanzees. We modern humans, descended from a tiny tribe of east Africans who lived 200,000 years ago, are the odd ones out in being so genetically monotonous. Most species are like chimps: lots of ancient genetic diversity within a broad geographical range but still connected by interbreeding. Until somebody produces better evidence, it's a race of Neanderthal. Nature should be more cautious.