Written by Bella Dalima
06 Dec, 2013 | 5:59 pm
The discovery of DNA in a 400,000-year-old human thigh bone will open up a new frontier in the study of our ancestors. That is the verdict cast by human evolution experts on an analysis in Nature journal of the oldest human genetic material ever sequenced.
The femur comes from the famed “Pit of Bones” site in Spain, which gave up the remains of at least 28 ancient people. But the results are perplexing, raising more questions than answers about our increasingly complex family tree.
The early human remains from the cave site near the northern Spanish city of Burgos have been painstakingly excavated and pieced together over the course of more than two decades. It has yielded one of the richest assemblages of human bones from this stage of human evolution, in a time called the Middle Pleistocene.
To access the pit (called Sima de los Huesos in Spanish) scientists must crawl for hundreds of metres through narrow cave tunnels and rope down through the dark. The bodies were probably deposited there deliberately – their causes of death unknown.
The fossils carry many traits typical of Neanderthals, and either belong to an ancestral species known as Homo heidelbergensis – or, as the British palaeoanthropologist Chris Stringer suggests – are early representatives of the Neanderthal lineage.
DNA’s tendency to break down over time means it has not previously been possible to study the genetics of such ancient members of the human family.
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