Scientists sequence oldest human DNA from fossilised leg bone found in Spain

European was more closely related to a much earlier species of human living in Siberia about 700,000 years ago than to the later Neanderthals of Europe

Science Editor

Scientists have extracted and sequenced the oldest human DNA. It came from a fossilised leg bone of an early human who died about 400,000 years ago in what is now northern Spain.

Its DNA sequence indicates that this early European was more closely related to a much earlier species of human living in Siberia about 700,000 years ago than to the later Neanderthals of Europe who became extinct about 30,000 years ago.

The genetic link between early Europeans and even earlier Asians has surprised researchers who had expected to find a closer genetic relationship to the later Neanderthals, who had occupied Europe for tens of thousands of years before eventually dying out after anatomically-modern humans arrived.

“It really raises more questions than it answers,” said Svante Paabo, the director the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig where the ancient DNA was extracted from the thigh bone of a skeleton excavated from the cave site known as the “pit of bones” in Sierra de Atapuerca.

More than 28 human skeletons have been excavated from Sima de los Huesos cave, along with the bones of extinct animals such as cave bears dating back about 600,000 years, making it one of the richest sources of prehistoric fossils in Europe.

Many palaeontologists believe that the femur bone used in the DNA extraction comes from an early “hominin” species known as Homo heidelbergensis, although other experts think that it is more likely to be a primitive ancestor of Neanderthal man.

However, what has surprised the researchers is the relatively close similarity between the mitochondrial DNA of this Neanderthal-like European and the mitochondrial DNA of the Denisovans, a species that lived about 700,000 years ago in the Altai mountains of Siberia and known only from a small finger bone and two relatively large molar teeth.

“The fact that the mitochondrial DNA of the Sima de los Huesos hominin shares a common ancestor with Denisovan rather than Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA is unexpected since its skeletal remains carry Neanderthal-derived features,” said Matthias Meyer of the Max Planck Institute, who led the study published in the journal Nature.

DNA from a skeleton was taken by scientists who found it in a cave (Madrid Scientific Films) DNA from a skeleton was taken by scientists who found it in a cave (Madrid Scientific Films)
One possibility is that the Sima humans were related to a population of early man that was ancestral to both the Denisovans and the Neanderthals. Alternatively, there could have been interbreeding with another group of humans who brought Denisovan-like DNA from Asia into the Sima people or their direct ancestors.

Dr Paabo said that one way to resolve the conundrum over who was related to whom, would be to extract the nuclear DNA of the chromosomes, which is technically harder in fossilised bone than extracting the DNA of the mitochondria, which is inherited solely down the maternal line.

“Our results show that we can now study DNA from human ancestors that are hundreds of thousands of years old. This opens prospects to study the genes of ancestors of Neanderthals and Denisovans. It is tremendously exciting,” Dr Paabo said.

Juan-Luis Arsuaga, director of the Centre for Research on Human Evolution and Behaviour in Madrid, said: “The unexpected result points to a complex pattern of evolution in the origin of Neanderthals and modern humans. I hope that further research will help clarify the genetic relationships of the hominins from Sima de los Huesos to Neanderthals and Denisovans.”

Professor Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural History Museum in London, said that the unusual finding poses intriguing questions about the early origins of Neanderthals and their relationship with other humans living at that time.

“It is exciting to see genetic material of this age being successfully sequenced. The mitochondrial DNA from a fossil femur found at La Sima de los Huesos or the Pit of Bones in Spain could be from around 400,000 years old. This represents the oldest human DNA material yet recovered,” Professor Stringer said.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Support Administrator - Part Time

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the South West'...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - OTE £40,000

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An expanding business based in ...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales - Business Broker - Scotland

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As an award winning and leading...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales - Business Broker - North East Region

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As an award winning and leading...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas