Mitochondrial Pseudogenes Suggest Repeated Inter-Species Hybridization among Direct Human Ancestors

The hypothesis that the evolution of humans involves hybridization between diverged species has been actively debated in recent years. We present the following novel evidence in support of this hypothesis: the analysis of nuclear pseudogenes of mtDNA (“NUMTs”). NUMTs are considered “mtDNA fossils” as they preserve sequences of ancient mtDNA and thus carry unique information about ancestral populations. Our comparison of a NUMT sequence shared by humans, chimpanzees, and gorillas with their mtDNAs implies that, around the time of divergence between humans and chimpanzees, our evolutionary history involved the interbreeding of individuals whose mtDNA had diverged as much as ~4.5 Myr prior. This large divergence suggests a distant interspecies hybridization. Additionally, analysis of two other NUMTs suggests that such events occur repeatedly. Our findings suggest a complex pattern of speciation in primate/human ancestors and provide one potential explanation for the mosaic nature of fossil morphology found at the emergence of the hominin lineage. A preliminary version of this manuscript was uploaded to the preprint server BioRxiv in 2017 (10.1101/134502).