Could viruses have played a role in the extinction of Neanderthals? Researchers have uncovered the oldest known human viruses in a set of Neanderthal bones from over 50,000 years ago.

Neanderthals were affected by some of the same viruses as modern humans S. ENTRESSANGLE:E. DAYNES:SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
Neanderthals were affected by some of the same viruses as modern humans; Photo: S. ENTRESSANGLE/E. DAYNES/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

The team behind the research reviewed raw DNA sequencing of two sets of Neanderthal remains recovered from the Chagyrskaya cave in Russia. Within those raw sequences, the researchers looked for the remnants of genomes of three types of DNA viruses: adenovirus, herpesvirus, and papillomavirus.

They uncovered the remnants of all three groups of viruses. This makes them the oldest human viruses ever discovered, taking the title from those found in 31,600-year-old Homo sapiens remains.

According to the preprint’s authors, this demonstrates that viral genomes can be detected in archaeological samples and that Neanderthals may have been affected by the same viruses as humans.

Adenoviruses, for example, can cause a wide range of illnesses, from the pain in the butt that is the common cold to a nasty bout of acute gastroenteritis. Epstein-Barr virus that can trigger mononucleosis and multiple sclerosis belongs to the herpesviruses, and papillomavirus is best known for its association with cervical cancer.

Neanderthals may have been more susceptible to these three viruses and their effects. Researchers are still considering the possibility of site contamination, but they believe this has been avoided because they compared the ancient virus sequences with modern virus sequences to check for similarities and differences.

“Taken together, our data indicate that these viruses might represent viruses that really infected Neanderthals,” study author Marcelo Briones told New Scientist.

Though researchers were clear that they don’t believe that viruses alone caused the extinction of the Neanderthals, they do believe the new discovery adds some credence to the theory that viruses may have played a role.

“To support their provocative and interesting hypothesis, it would be necessary to prove that at least the genomes of these viruses can be found in Neanderthal remains,” said Briones. “That is what we did.”