The DNA, which represents the oldest hominin sequence yet published, has left researchers baffled because most of them believed that the bones would be more closely linked to Neanderthals than to Denisovans. “That’s not what I would have expected; that’s not what anyone would have expected,” says Chris Stringer, a palaeoanthropologist at London’s Natural History Museum who was not involved in sequencing the femur DNA.
Clive Finlayson, an archaeologist at the Gibraltar Museum, calls the latest paper “sobering and refreshing”, and says that too many ideas about human evolution have been derived from limited samples and preconceived ideas. “The genetics, to me, don’t lie,” he adds.
Excavations of a complex of caves in the Sierra de Atapuerca in northern Spain have unearthed hominin fossils that range in age from the early Pleistocene to the Holocene1. One of these sites, the ‘Sima de los Huesos’ (‘pit of bones’), has yielded the world’s largest assemblage of Middle Pleistocene hominin fossils2, 3, consisting of at least 28 individuals4 dated to over 300,000 years ago5. The skeletal remains share a number of morphological features with fossils classified as Homo heidelbergensis and also display distinct Neanderthal-derived traits6, 7, 8. Here we determine an almost complete mitochondrial genome sequence of a hominin from Sima de los Huesos and show that it is closely related to the lineage leading to mitochondrial genomes of Denisovans9, 10, an eastern Eurasian sister group to Neanderthals. Our results pave the way for DNA research on hominins from the Middle Pleistocene.
In short, lots of near certainties will get shredded.
From the missing mutations in the old DNA sequences the researchers calculated that the Sima hominin lived about 400,000 years ago. They also found that it shared a common ancestor with the Denisovans, an extinct archaic group from Asia related to the Neandertals, about 700,000 years ago. “The fact that the mtDNA of the Sima de los Huesos hominin shares a common ancestor with Denisovan rather than Neandertal mtDNAs is unexpected since its skeletal remains carry Neandertal-derived features,” says Matthias Meyer. Considering their age and Neandertal-like features, the Sima hominins were likely related to the population ancestral to both Neandertals and Denisovans. Another possibility is that gene flow from yet another group of hominins brought the Denisova-like mtDNA into the Sima hominins or their ancestors.
“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 the ancestors of Neandertals and Denisovans. It is tremendously exciting” says Svante Pääbo, director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
“This unexpected result points to a complex pattern of evolution in the origin of Neandertals and modern humans.
Translation from the Swedish: A lot of lecterns have been pounded into splinters for nothing.