Ancient DNA extracted from Neanderthal fossils of Gibraltar for the first time

New preparation method with Gibraltar Neanderthal skulls leads to improved access to ancient DNA
Forbes Quarry cranium. Credit: Trustees of the Natural History Museum

A new collaborative study, led by the Natural History Museum and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, has extracted ancient DNA from the Neanderthal fossils of Gibraltar for the first time. The new study has confirmed the sex of the skulls and in the case of the fossil discovered in Forbes' Quarry, has related it to Neanderthals beyond Gibraltar.

The Neanderthal fossils of Gibraltar are among the most prominent finds in palaeontology. The fossils are some of the most historic of their kind, having been discovered at Forbes' Quarry in 1848 and Devil's Tower in 1926. The authors of the new study used a DNA preparation method that reduces modern contamination prior to sequencing, to isolate the Neanderthal DNA component.

The Natural History Museum's Professor Chris Stringer said: "The analyses confirmed that the Devil's Tower child was male, and the Forbes' Quarry adult was female and genetically more similar to earlier (60,000-120,000 year-old) Neanderthals in Europe and western Asia than to younger Neanderthal remains from Spain. Although Gibraltar is often considered as one of the last refuges for the Neanderthals before their extinction, it seems that Forbes' Quarry is not a late Neanderthal."

To investigate DNA preservation in the Neanderthal remains, Lukas Bokelmann and colleagues analysed 20mg of petrous bone powder from the Forbes' Quarry specimen and 36mg of powder from the Devil's Tower specimen.

Dr. Selina Brace, a co-author on the paper from the Natural History Museum said: "It's an exciting time to be working in the field of ancient DNA. Methodological improvements, as shown in this study, are enabling us to work with some really challenging material. Working with ancient DNA is always tricky, but because these samples were both old, and had been in a , they would have been especially difficult to work on."

Professor Ian Barnes from the Natural History Museum said: "It was fantastic to work with the Leipzig team on this project, as they have done an amazing amount to develop the field of ancient DNA, and particularly Neanderthal genomics."

The results show that it's now possible to analyse DNA in highly contaminated fossils from relatively warm climates, holding out promise for the recovery of comparably ancient DNA from regions such as North Africa, the Middle East, and China.

The paper was published in PNAS on 15 July.

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More information: Lukas Bokelmann et al. A genetic analysis of the Gibraltar Neanderthals, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2019). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1903984116
Citation: Ancient DNA extracted from Neanderthal fossils of Gibraltar for the first time (2019, July 16) retrieved 18 August 2019 from
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Jul 16, 2019
Is it technically a fossil if the original material hasn't been replaced with environmental minerals?

Jul 16, 2019
Possibly. There are other processes that produce fossils. Replacement is one way but fossils produced by other means are still technically fossils.

Jul 16, 2019
in general, even after a lifetime of abuse, if the archeologists are lucky enough to find an intact, undamaged tooth?

there maybe enough enamel left to protect enough soft tissue within, to test positive for DNA

like so much in archeology, it's a crap shoot! & some careless persons keep crapping on the evidence

the looters & religious numbnuts & real estate developers know of whom i accuse

Jul 17, 2019
Is it technically a fossil if the original material hasn't been replaced with environmental minerals?

Good question! Though of course the process would not be immediate or easy to quantify, as in other processes in biology (say, speciation). My understanding of the use of the term is that many anthropologists, possibly even paleontologists, use it as a grab-all term for ancient biological traces. That is why we can see trace fossils (i.e. biomolecules) or imprint fossils (tracks or infills).

"fossil (n.)
1610s, "any thing dug up;" 1650s (adj.) "obtained by digging" (of coal, salt, etc.), from French fossile (16c.), from Latin fossilis "dug up," from fossus, past participle of fodere "to dig," from PIE root *bhedh- "to dig, pierce."

Restricted noun sense of "geological remains of a plant or animal" is from 1736 (the adjective in the sense "pertaining to fossils" is from 1660s); slang meaning "old person" ...". [ https://www.etymo...d/fossil ]

Jul 17, 2019
Seems my reading was not too bad:

"A fossil (from Classical Latin fossilis; literally, "obtained by digging")[1] is any preserved remains, impression, or trace of any once-living thing from a past geological age. Examples include bones, shells, exoskeletons, stone imprints of animals or microbes, objects preserved in amber, hair, petrified wood, oil, coal, and DNA remnants. The totality of fossils is known as the fossil record.

Paleontology is the study of fossils: their age, method of formation, and evolutionary significance. ..."

[ https://en.wikipe...i/Fossil ]

Jul 18, 2019
Imprints and tracks are considered trace fossils. The biomolecules are called chemical fossils, molecular fossils, or maybe microfossils.

Jul 18, 2019
@Darth, you've gotten a lot of good answers to your question. Keep asking!

In this case, we're dealing with bones that haven't been completely replaced by minerals because they're still young enough for there not to have been enough time for that to happen. It generally takes millions of years. And these aren't millions of years old.

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