Albert Perry carried a secret in his DNA: a Y chromosome so distinctive that it reveals new information about the origin of our species. It shows that the last common male ancestor down the paternal line of our species is over twice as old as we thought.
One possible explanation is that hundreds of thousands of years ago, modern and archaic humans in central Africa interbred, adding to known examples of interbreeding – with Neanderthals in the Middle East, and with the enigmatic Denisovans somewhere in southeast Asia.
Perry, recently deceased, was an African-American who lived in South Carolina. A few years ago, one of his female relatives submitted a sample of his DNA to a company called Family Tree DNA for genealogical analysis.
Geneticists can use such samples to work out how we are related to one another. Hundreds of thousands of people have now had their DNA tested. The data from these tests had shown that all men gained their Y chromosome from a common male ancestor. This genetic “Adam” lived between 60,000 and 140,000 years ago.
All men except Perry, that is. When Family Tree DNA’s technicians tried to place Perry on the Y-chromosome family tree, they just couldn’t. His Y chromosome was like no other so far analysed.
"The Y-chromosome tree is much older than we thought," says Chris Tyler-Smith at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Hinxton, UK, who was not involved in the study. He says further work will be needed to confirm exactly how much older.
"It’s a cool discovery," says Jon Wilkins of the Ronin Institute in Montclair, New Jersey. "We geneticists have been looking at Y chromosomes about as long as we’ve been looking at anything. Changing where the root of the Y-chromosome tree is at this point is extremely surprising."