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The author uses the word previously most probably to emphasize that
Previously does not refer to the evolution of the Neanderthals.
Previously does not refer to decades, nor does the passage as a whole take the position that one side of the discussion is definitely correct and the other wrong.
Previously does not refer to earlier research methods, but to what was argued before.
While previously may refer to an earlier generation of researchers, it focuses on the content of what they had argued in the past, not on their access to different research methods. While the fact that earlier researchers did not have access to DNA analysis is reasonable, this is not explicitly stated in the passage, and that is not the specific reason the word "previously" is used.
Since the theory that humans and Neanderthals had mated was argued before, the notion that there was interbreeding between the two species is not new.