Fossil teeth yield oldest genetic material from extinct human species
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[April 07, 2020]
By Will Dunham
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Scientists have
extracted from dental enamel the oldest human genetic material ever
obtained, helping clarify the pivotal place in the human evolutionary
lineage of a mysterious extinct species called Homo antecessor known
from Spanish cave fossils.
The researchers said they obtained genetic material from an
800,000-year-old Homo antecessor molar unearthed near the village of
Atapuerca in northern Spain and from a 1.77 million-year-old molar of
another extinct human species called Homo erectus found near the town of
Dmanisi in Georgia.
They retrieved the ancient proteins from fossilized teeth using a method
called palaeoproteomics that can find genetic material in fossils too
old to contain DNA because of its chemical degradation over time.
"Protein sequences are determined by the DNA sequence of our genomes,
and therefore these ancient protein sequences provide some evolutionary
information. We have previously shown we are able to extract ancient
proteins even from 2 million year old animal fossils," University of
Copenhagen molecular anthropologist Frido Welker, lead author of the
research published in the journal Nature, said on Monday.
Until now, the oldest genetic material from an extinct human species was
dated to about 420,000 years ago.
The Homo antecessor genetic material was especially illuminating, the
researchers said, after comparing it to more recent genetic data from
our species and extinct human species.
It showed Homo antecessor was closely related to the last common
ancestor of the evolutionary lineage that led to Homo sapiens and two
extinct cousins: the Neanderthals and the lesser-known Denisovans.
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Skeletal remains unearthed at the Gran Dolina site in Spain of the
extinct human species Homo antecessor are seen in this undated
handout photo. Prof. Jose Maria Bermudez de Castro/Handout via
"It confirms that Homo antecessor may be at the base of an emerging
new humanity, probably appearing around a million years ago in
Southwest Asia, particularly in the Levantine Corridor (in the
Middle East)," said paleoanthropologist and study co-author José-María
Bermúdez de Castro of the National Center for Research on Human
Evolution in Burgos, Spain.
"That region was an important refuge for biodiversity during the ice
ages," he added, helping foster the appearance of new species.
The analyzed tooth was found in 2003 and belonged to a male
individual. While many aspects of Homo antecessor remain unclear,
researchers previously cited evidence suggesting the species engaged
The researchers said palaeoproteomics could help decipher human
evolution, augmenting knowledge obtained through the study of the
shape and the physical structure of skeletal fossils.
Our species first appeared in Africa roughly 300,000 years ago.
Scientists have sought greater understanding of the human family
tree including the immediate ancestors of the lineage that produced
Homo sapiens, Denisovans and Neanderthals.
"Molecular data," Welker said, "provides an independent source of
(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Sandra Maler)
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