The Sima de los Huesos (‘pit of bones’) site in the cave complex of Atapuerca in northern Spain has yielded one of the greatest assemblages of hominin bones. Well-preserved remains of at least 28 individuals date to the Middle Pleistocene (>300 ka). Anatomically the individuals have many Neanderthal-like features but also show affinities with earlier Homo heidelbergensis, who is widely considered to be the common ancestor for anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals, and perhaps also for the mysterious Denisovans. Most palaeoanthropologists have previously considered this Atapuerca group to be early Neanderthals, divergent from African lineages because they migrated to and became isolated in Europe.
The riches of the Sima de los Huesos ossuary made it inevitable that attempts would be made to extract DNA that survived in the bones, especially as bear bones from the area had shown that mtDNA can survive more than 4300 ka. There has been an air of expectancy in hominin-evolution circles, and indeed among the wider public, since rumours emerged that the famous Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany had initiated genetic sequencing under the direction of Svante Pääbo: perhaps another ‘scoop’ to add to their reconstructing the first Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes. The news came out in the 5 December 2013 issue of Nature, albeit published on-line (Meyer, M. and 10 others 2013. A mitochondrial genome sequence of a hominin from Sima de los Huesos, Nature, v. 504; doi:10.1038/nature12788) with a discussion by Ewan Callaway (Callaway, E. 2013. Hominin DNA baffles experts Nature, v. 504, p. 16-17).
The bafflement is because the mtDNA from a femur of a 400 ka individual does not match existing Neanderthal data as well as it does that of the Denisovan from Siberia by such a degree that the individual is an early Denisovan not a Neanderthal. Northern Spain being thousands of kilometres further west than the Denisova cave heightens the surprise. Indeed, it may be on a lineage from an earlier hominin that did not give rise to Neanderthals. The full Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes suggest that they shared a common ancestor up to 700 ka ago. So the Sima de los Huesos individual presents several possibilities. It could be a member of an original population of migrants from Africa that occupied wide tracts of Eurasia, eventually to give rise to both Neanderthals and Denisovans. That genetic split may have arisen by the female line carrying it not surviving into populations that became Neanderthals – mtDNA is only present in the eggs of mothers. Mind you, that begs the question of who the Neanderthal females were. Another view is that the Sima de los Huesos individual may be descended from even earlier H. antecessor, whose 800 ka remains occur in a nearby cave. Pääbo’s team have even suggested that Denisovans interbred with a mysterious group: perhaps relics of the earlier H. antecessor colonists.
Established ideas of how humans emerged, based on bones alone and very few individuals to boot, are set to totter and collapse like a house of cards. Interbreeding has been cited three times from DNA data: modern human-Neanderthal; modern human-Denisovan and Denisovan with an unknown population. Will opinion converge on what seems to be obvious, that one repeatedly errant species, albeit with distinct variants, has been involved from far back in the human evolutionary journey? There seems only one avenue to follow for an answer, which is to look for well preserved H. heidelbergensis. H. antecessor and H. erectus remains and apply ever improving techniques of genetic retrieval. Yet there is a chance that stretches of ancient DNA can be teased out of younger fossils.
- Discovery of Oldest DNA Scrambles Human Origins Picture (news.nationalgeographic.com)
- Earliest Human DNA Shows Unforeseen Mixing with Mystery Population (scientificamerican.com)