Through human evolution, this new gene stayed remarkably the same, experts said. (See a map of the human journey.)
Pääbo and his team were curious how Neandertals' FOXP2 gene stacked up against ours.
"This is the first time a specific nuclear gene has been retrieved from Neandertals," Krause said.
Only genes from mitochondria, the energy powerhouses inside cells, had been sequenced before.
The researchers also took steps to ensure they didn't contaminate the samples.
"We have done many controls to make sure that our results are not due to contamination by modern human DNA or other potential errors," Krause added.
For example, they checked for signs that Neandertals and humans had bred with each other but didn't see any signs of this in the genes. (Related news: "Odd Skull Boosts Human, Neandertal Interbreeding Theory" [August 2, 2007].)
Krause and colleagues concluded that modern humans' version of FOXP2 must have arisen sometime before our lineage split from Neandertals', about 300,000 to 400,000 years ago.
The study is published online today in the journal Current Biology.
A Challenge to Speech Theory
"Many researchers ... have argued for language [as] a feature that separated Homo sapiens from the Neandertals and perhaps led to their demise," said anthropologist Terrence Deacon of the University of California, Berkeley, who was not involved in the study. (Related news: "Neandertals Beaten by Rivals' Word Skills, Study Says" [November 24, 2004].)
But the new study suggests that view is wrong, he said.
The finding "significantly challenges arguments for the recent evolution of spoken language, confined to anatomically modern Homo sapiens," Deacon added.
Faraneh Vargha-Khadem, a neuroscientist at University College London who studies people with FOXP2 mutations, said she's not surprised by the new findings.
She had expected Neandertals would have had the same version of the gene as modern humans do.
"Neandertals probably vocalized too," she said, but "it takes a lot more than FOXP2 to produce the mind that produces language."
Jianzhi Zhang is a geneticist at the University of Michigan who was also not involved in the research.
He was surprised by the new findings, since earlier genetic studies suggested the Neandertal version of the gene would be different.
"It would be interesting to look for other genetic changes required for speech and put them in order of when they happened during human evolution," Zhang said.
"It would then be possible to tell how well each extinct hominid species spoke."
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