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Disease transmission and introgression can explain the long-lasting contact zone of modern humans and Neanderthals.

Abstract

Neanderthals and modern humans both occupied the Levant for tens of thousands of years prior to the spread of modern humans into the rest of Eurasia and their replacement of the Neanderthals. That the inter-species boundary remained geographically localized for so long is a puzzle, particularly in light of the rapidity of its subsequent movement. Here, we propose that infectious-disease dynamics can explain the localization and persistence of the inter-species boundary. We further propose, and support with dynamical-systems models, that introgression-based transmission of alleles related to the immune system would have gradually diminished this barrier to pervasive inter-species interaction, leading to the eventual release of the inter-species boundary from its geographic localization. Asymmetries between the species in the characteristics of their associated 'pathogen packages' could have generated feedback that allowed modern humans to overcome disease burden earlier than Neanderthals, giving them an advantage in their subsequent spread into Eurasia.

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