Earliest proof of Neanderthals found in fossils from Spain

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Earliest proof of Neanderthals found in fossils from SpainA team of researchers has found what could be the earliest genetic proof of Neanderthals, following analysis of fossils discovered in Spain some three years ago.

A hominin fossil was discovered in 2013 at Sima de los Huesos, an excavation site in the north of Spain. At that time, it was determined that the fossil had similarities with Neanderthals in terms of their anatomy, but mitochondrial DNA analysis revealed that the fossil may have been that of an ancestor of Denisovans. That was refuted, though, by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropolgy.

The Max Planck Institute researchers sequenced nuclear DNA from the hominin fossil, and based on their findings on the 28 fragments recovered, the fossil may have actually been an early Neanderthal.

“Sima de los Huesos is currently the only non-permafrost site that allow us to study DNA sequences from the Middle Pleistocene, the time period preceding 125,000 years ago,” said study lead Matthias Meyer. He added that the discovery would not have been that quick if not for the “special care” taken in the excavation process, and that the findings represent the result of his team’s “continuous efforts in pushing for more sensitive sample isolation and genome sequencing.”

Other interesting findings from Meyer and his team include their discovery that Denisovans and Neanderthals diverged about 430,000 years before settling in Sima de los Huesos. This, according to the researchers, lends credence to existing theories about how and when the modern human lineage diverged from ancient humans.

“It’s fascinating and keeps us all on our toes trying to make sense of it all,” said Natural History Museum paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer, who was not involved in the study. “Instead of just being stuck with trying to resolve the last 100,000 years, we can really start to put some dates from DNA further down the human tree.”