400,000-year-old fossils from Spain provide earliest genetic evidence of Neandertals

March 15, 2016
The Sima de los Huesos hominins lived approximately 400,000 years ago during the Middle Pleistocene. Credit: Kennis & Kennis, Madrid Scientific Films

Previous analyses of the hominins from Sima de los Huesos in 2013 showed that their maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA was distantly related to Denisovans, extinct relatives of Neandertals in Asia. This was unexpected since their skeletal remains carry Neandertal-derived features. Researchers of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have since worked on sequencing nuclear DNA from fossils from the cave, a challenging task as the extremely old DNA is degraded to very short fragments. The results now show that the Sima de los Huesos hominins were indeed early Neandertals. Neandertals may have acquired different mitochondrial genomes later, perhaps as the result of gene flow from Africa.

Until now it has been unclear how the 28 400,000-year-old individuals found at the Sima de los Huesos ("pit of bones") site in Northern Spain were related to Neandertals and Denisovans who lived until about 40,000 years ago. A previous report based on analyses of mitochondrial DNA from one of the specimens suggested a distant relationship to Denisovans, which is in contrast to other archaeological evidence, including morphological features that the Sima de los Huesos hominins shared with Neandertals.

"Sima de los Huesos is currently the only non-permafrost site that allow us to study DNA sequences from the Middle Pleistocene, the time period preceding 125,000 years ago", says Matthias Meyer of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, lead author of an article that was published in Nature today. "The recovery of a small part of the nuclear genome from the Sima de los Huesos hominins is not just the result of our continuous efforts in pushing for more sensitive sample isolation and genome sequencing technologies", Meyer adds. "This work would have been much more difficult without the special care that was taken during excavation."

New techniques and precise work make the difference

Excavation works at the cave site Sima de los Huesos. Credit: Javier Trueba, Madrid Scientific Films

"We have hoped for many years that advances in molecular analysis techniques would one day aid our investigation of this unique assembly of fossils", explains Juan-Luis Arsuaga of the Complutense University in Madrid, Spain, who has led the excavations at Sima de los Huesos for three decades. "We have thus removed some of the specimens with clean instruments and left them embedded in clay to minimize alterations of the material that might take place after excavation." The nuclear DNA sequences recovered from two specimens secured in this way show that they belong to the Neandertal evolutionary lineage and are more closely related to Neandertals than to Denisovans. This finding indicates that the population divergence between Denisovans and Neandertals had already occurred by 430,000 years ago when the Sima de los Huesos hominins lived.

According to Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology "these results provide important anchor points in the timeline of human evolution. They are consistent with a rather early divergence of 550,000 to 750,000 years ago of the modern human lineage from archaic humans".

Hominins from the Sima de los Huesos cave. Credit: Madrid Scientific Films

Consistent with the previous study, the mitochondrial DNA of the Sima de los Huesos hominins is closer related to Denisovans than Neandertals. Mitochondrial DNA seen in Late Pleistocene Neandertals may thus have been acquired by them later in their history, perhaps as a result of gene flow from Africa. The researchers propose that retrieval of further mitochondrial and nuclear DNA from Middle Pleistocene fossils could help to clarify the evolutionary relationship between Middle and Late Pleistocene hominins in Eurasia.

The video will load shortly.
On their way to the excavation site in Sima de los Huesos Cave the scientists must crawl through narrow tunnels and rope down into the dark.

Explore further: Oldest hominin DNA sequenced

More information: Matthias Meyer et al. Nuclear DNA sequences from the Middle Pleistocene Sima de los Huesos hominins, Nature (2016). DOI: 10.1038/nature17405

Related Stories

Oldest hominin DNA sequenced

December 4, 2013

Using novel techniques to extract and study ancient DNA researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have determined an almost complete mitochondrial genome sequence of a 400,000-year-old ...

Lethal wounds on skull may indicate 430,000-year-old murder

May 27, 2015

Lethal wounds identified on a human skull in the Sima de los Huesos, Spain, may indicate one of the first cases of murder in human history, some 430,000 years ago, according to a study published May 27 2015 in the open-access ...

German researchers publish full Neanderthal genome

March 19, 2013

(Phys.org) —The Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig, Germany, hascompleted the genome sequence of a Neandertal and makes the entire sequence available to the scientific community today.

Recommended for you

The mathematics of golf

August 16, 2017

(Phys.org)—The official Rules of Golf, which are continually being revised and updated as new equipment emerges, have close ties to mathematics. In many cases, math is used to place limitations on golf equipment, such as ...

Study identifies dinosaur 'missing link'

August 15, 2017

A bizarre dinosaur which looked like a raptor but was in fact a vegetarian may be the 'missing link' between plant-eating dinosaurs and theropods, the group that includes carnivores such as Tyrannosaurus rex and Velociraptor.

5 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

torbjorn_b_g_larsson
4.6 / 5 (9) Mar 15, 2016
From the accompanying Nature News article:

"The nuclear DNA, Meyer's team reports in Nature on 14 March, shows that the Sima hominins are in fact early Neanderthals. And its age suggests that the early predecessors of humans diverged from those of Neanderthals between 550,000 and 765,000 years ago — too far back for the common ancestors of both to have been Homo heidelbergensis, as some had posited.
Researchers should now be looking for a population that lived around 700,000 to 900,000 years ago, says Martinón-Torres. She thinks that Homo antecessor, known from 900,000-year-old remains from Spain, is the strongest candidate for the common ancestor, if such specimens can be found in Africa or the Middle East."

[ http://www.nature...-1.19557 ]

I note:

- Likely H. antecessor, not H. heidelbergensis, as our closes ancestor!
- A lot of Out Of Africa events!
EnricM
not rated yet Mar 21, 2016
From the accompanying Nature News article:

- A lot of Out Of Africa events!


Which makes quite some sense. Seems as if we had a pretty mobile population back then.
viko_mx
1 / 5 (1) Mar 21, 2016
Each specialist in plastic surgery can confirm that the tissues of animals and humans, which largely determine their appearance can not be reconstructed in the shape of bones. So evolutionists offer only artistic interpretations. It is interesting to know by method is determined this age. If we trace in details this dating method we will encounter interesting practices.
Thirteenth Doctor
5 / 5 (2) Mar 21, 2016
It is interesting to know by method is determined this age. If we trace in details this dating method we will encounter interesting practices.


What does it matter to you? You don't like evidence anyway. God did it. There. Go away now.
viko_mx
not rated yet Mar 21, 2016
It matters because the evolutionst in attempt to defend their religion are using non scientific methods and unethical practices. It is interesting to be examined their methods in details.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.