Spanish fossils offer earliest genetic evidence of Neanderthals

"This work would have been much more difficult without the special care that was taken during excavation," said researcher Matthias Meyer.
By Brooks Hays   |   March 15, 2016 at 4:00 PM

LEIPZIG, Germany, March 15 (UPI) -- Scientists have found the earliest genetic evidence of Neanderthals from a fossil recovered in Spain.

The hominin bones were found in 2013 at an excavation site known as Sima de los Huesos, a karstic region of northern Spain. Despite anatomical similarities between the hominins and Neanderthals, previous mitochondrial DNA analysis suggested the bones belonged to distant relatives of Denisovans.

But more recently, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology were able to sequence nuclear DNA from the recovered genetic fragments. The results suggest the 28 specimens recovered from the cave were indeed early Neanderthals.

"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," researcher Matthias Meyer said in a press release.

Meyer is the lead author of a new paper on the findings, published this week in the journal Nature.

"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 added. "This work would have been much more difficult without the special care that was taken during excavation."

The new analysis was made possible by advancements in the technology used in sequencing mitochondrial DNA.

According to the results of the analysis, Denisovans and Neanderthals diverged some 430,000 years prior to the Sima de los Huesos settlement.

"These results provide important anchor points in the timeline of human evolution," study co-author Svante Paabo said. "They are consistent with a rather early divergence of 550,000 to 750,000 years ago of the modern human lineage from archaic humans."

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