There is evidence that modern humans mating with Neanderthals helped humans spread out of Africa to distant parts of the globe.
While only 6 per cent of the non-African modern human genome comes from other hominins, the share of HLAs acquired during interbreeding is much higher. Half of European HLA-A alleles come from other hominins, says Parham, and that figure rises to 72 per cent for people in China, and over 90 per cent for those in Papua New Guinea.
This suggests they were increasingly selected for as H. sapiens moved east. That could be because humans migrating north would have faced fewer diseases than those heading towards the tropics of south-east Asia, says Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London.