A protein clue to H. antecessor’s role in human evolution

Homo_antecessor child
Forensic reconstruction of the remains of a Homo antecessor child from Gran Dolina Cave in northern Spain (credit Élisabeth Daynès, Museo de la Evolución, Burgos, Spain)

The older a fossil, no matter how well preserved it is, the less chance it has to contain enough undegraded DNA for it to be extracted and sequenced using the most advanced techniques. At present the oldest fossil DNA not to have passed its ‘sell-by’date is that of a 560 to 780 thousand year-old horse’s legbone found in Canadian permafrost. For human remains the oldest mtDNA is that of a ~430 ka individual from the Sima de los Huesos in northern Spain (see: Mitochondrial DNA from 400 thousand year old humans; Earth-logs December 2013). But there is another route to establishing genetic relatedness from the amino-acid sequences of proteins recovered from ancient individuals (see: Ancient proteins: keys to early human evolution?). Fossil teeth have proved to be good repositories of ancient protein and are the most commonly found hominin fossils.

A key species for unravelling the origins of the three most recent human groups (ourselves, Neanderthals and Denisovans) is thought to be Homo antecessor who inhabited the Gran Dolina Cave in the Atapuerca Mountains in northern Spain between about 1.2 Ma and 800 ka ago (see: Human evolution: bush or basketwork? Earth-logs, January 2014). Palaeoanthropologists excavated 170 skeletal fragments from six individuals in the most productive layer at Gran Dolina. Incomplete facial bones suggest a ‘modern-like’ face, although the remains as a whole are insufficient to reconstruct the oldest Europeans with sufficient detail to place them in anatomical relation to the younger groups. But there are several teeth. One of them, a permanent molar, has yielded informative proteins (Welker, F. and 26 others 2020. The dental proteome of Homo antecessor. Nature, v. 580, p. 235-238; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2153-8) and has been dated to between 772 to 949 ka.

Amino acids in the dental proteins, sequenced using mass spectrometry, were compared with those of other hominins. Because protein sequences are coded by an animal’s genome they are a ‘proxy’ for DNA. The outcome is that the Gran Dolina proteins are roughly equally related to Denisovans, Neanderthals and ourselves, suggesting that, although the younger three groups are closely related, H. antecessor is an ‘outlier’. Being significantly older, it is likely to be the common ancestor of all three. Another species with close anatomical affinities is H. heidelbergensis (700 to 300 ka) found in Africa as well as in Europe. Its mtDNA (see: Mitochondrial DNA from 400 thousand year old humans; Earth-logs December 2013) matches that of Denisovans better than it does Neanderthals, yet without protein and full-genome analysis all that can be concluded is that it may be an intermediary between H. antecessor and the well known interbreeding triad of more recent times.

We are getting closer to a documented web of interrelationships between humans in general whose time span from 2 Ma ago is now well established. The remaining genetic link to be documented is that to H. erectus, the longest lived and most travelled of all ancient humans. Frido Welker and co-workers also had a shot at the proteomics of one of the first humans known to have migrated from Africa, using an isolated, presumably H. erectus, molar found at the 1.77 Ma site at Dmanisi in the Caucasus foothills of Georgia. Although inconclusive in placing that precociously intrepid group firmly in the human story, the fact that dental proteins were discovered is cause for optimism.

See also: Campbell, M. 2020. Protein analysis of 800,000-year-old human fossil clarifies dispute over ancestors (Technology Networks, 1 April 2020)

Traces of the most ancient Britons

Perhaps the most evocative traces of our ancestors are their footprints preserved in once soft muds or silts, none more so than the 3.6 Ma old hominin trackway at Laetoli in Tanzania, discovered by Mary Leakey and colleagues in 1978. Such records of living beings’ activities are by no means vanishingly rare. In 2003 footprints of Neanderthal children emerged in volcanic ash that had formed on the slopes of an Italian volcano. The fact that the tracks zig-zagged and included handprints seemed to suggest that the children were playing on a tempting slope of soft sediment, much as they do today (see The first volcanologists?   and Walking with the ancestors). The muddy sediments of the Severn and Mersey estuaries in England yield younger footprints of anatomically modern humans of all sizes every time tidal flows rip up the sedimentary layers. Now similar examples have been unearthed from 1.0 to 0.78 Ma old Pleistocene interglacial sediments at a coastal site in Norfolk, England, in which stone tools had been found in 2010 .

Coastal exposure of Pleistocene laminated sediments at Happisburgh (credit: Ashton et a. 2014 PLOS1)
Coastal exposure of Pleistocene laminated sediments at Happisburgh; the top surface exposes the hominin trackway  (credit: Ashton et al. 2014 PLOS1)

A team funded by the Pathways to Ancient Britain Project, involving scientists from a consortium of British museums and universities, rapidly conserved a 12 m2 surface of laminated sediments fortuitously exposed on the foreshore at Happisburgh (pronounced ‘Haze-burra’) by winter storms. It was covered in footprints (Ashton, N. and 11 others 2014. Hominin Footprints from Early Pleistocene Deposits at Happisburgh, UK. PLoS ONE v. 9: e88329. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0088329). Analysis of the prints suggested a band of individuals who had tramped southwards across mudflats at the edge of an estuary. They were possibly members of an early human species, known as Homo antecessor, skeletal remains of whom are known from northern Spain. The Happisburgh individuals were of mixed size, probably including adults and juveniles: three footprint sets suggested 1.6 to 1.73 m stature; nine less than 1.4 m.

View from above of the well-trodden trackway at Happisburgh, with an enlarged example of one of the foot prints (credit: Ashton et al 2014 PLoS1)
View from above of the well-trodden trackway at Happisburgh, with an enlarged example of one of the foot prints (credit: Ashton et al. 2014 PLoS1)

From pollen samples, East Anglia during the interglacial had a cool climate with pine, spruce, birch and alder tree cover with patches of heath and grassland. That it had attracted early humans to travel so far north from the Mediterranean climate where skeletal remains are found, suggests that food resources were at least adequate. It is hard to imagine the band having been seasonal visitors from warmer climes further south. They must have been hardy, and from the stone tools we know they were well equipped and capable of killing sizeable prey animals, bones of which marked by clear cut marks being good evidence for their hunting skills.

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