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Found: Oldest Neanderthal DNA Ever

Scientists solved a case of missing identity: who were these 430,000-year-old hominins?

A Sima de los Huesos skull (Photo: José-Manuel Benito Álvarez/CC BY-SA 2.5)

Many, many years ago—approximately 430,000, to be as exact as possible—hominins were living in the region we now call northern Spain: the Atapuerca Mountains, where scientists have found their remains at Sima de los Huesos, the Pit of Bones. There have been thousands of bones found there, belonging to cave bears, other prehistoric animals, and 28 hominins.

What type of hominins were these? They shared features (a heavy brow, a particular jaw shape) with Neanderthals, but in 2013, a study of their mitochondrial DNA indicated that they were related to Denisovans, another group of early hominins who’ve been found across the continent, in Siberia. Which was it—Neanderthal or Denisovan?

In a new study, published in Nature, a group of researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology painstakingly isolated and analyzed the nuclear DNA of the Sima de los Huesos hominins. Their analysis shows that these bones are the remains of early Neanderthals, which makes their DNA the earliest samples of Neanderthal DNA ever analyzed.

The Max Planck scientists also found that, consistent with the earlier study, these Neanderthals shared mitochondrial DNA with Denisovans. That means that the Denisovans split off from the Neanderthals sometime earlier than 430,000 years ago, and that the different mitochondrial DNA found in later Neanderthals may have been acquired sometime after.

This is just one more piece of the very incomplete puzzle that scientists are building of the world that humans emerged from: scattered across the land, there were all manner of hominins, distantly related but pursuing their own way of life, until they eventually sputtered out.

Bonus finds: Lion statues

Every day, we highlight one newly found object, curiosity or wonder. Discover something amazing? Tell us about it! Send your finds to sarah.laskow@atlasobscura.com.