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DNA sequenced from a 400,000-year-old human ancestor

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Matthias Meyer and his team from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany and a Spanish team of paleontologists led by Juan-Luis Arsuaga reported the first sequencing of the oldest human ancestor DNA that has ever been performed in the Dec. 4, 2013, issue of the journal Nature.

The researchers sequenced the mitochondrial DNA from bone samples taken from Homo heidelbergensis found in the Sima de los Huesos cave in Northern Spain. The 28 hominin skeletons found in the cave over the last 20 years date to around 400,000 years ago. The researchers developed new techniques for retrieving and sequencing highly degraded ancient DNA. The scientists compared the mitochondrial DNA with the DNA of Neanderthals, Denisovans, modern humans, and apes.

The DNA analysis indicates that the Sima de los Huesos people were more closely related to Denisovans than to Neanderthals despite the fact that the proximity of known Neanderthal sites is much closer to the Sima de los Huesos cave than any Denisovan site that has been unearthed to date. Denisovan people and culture became extinct about 700,000 years ago. The physical appearance of the people from the Sima de los Huesos cave was found to be more similar to Neanderthals.

The unexpected result indicates that early human ancestors probably migrated over a larger range of territory than previously known and small groups of early human ancestors must have had a higher rate of interaction and breeding with other groups than previously thought. The possibility of multiple original sites of early human ancestor’s development in Africa and Europe at the same time is also a potential resulting from the DNA study.

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