Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany have used new techniques to extract and analyse DNA from the bones of human ancestors from 400,000 years ago - the oldest early human samples ever analysed, publishing their findings in the journal Nature. The bones were recovered from a cave in northern Spain called Sima de los Huesos, or the Bone pit, are from the genus Homo, and are much older than our own species, Homo sapiens. Using just two grams of powdered bone, the researchers managed to extract and sequence the DNA from mitochondria, the ‘energy factories’ of the cells.
Analysis showed the DNA was similar to that taken from Denisovans, extinct relatives of Neandertals that lived around 700,000 years ago in Siberia. This is unexpected, as the bones look more similar to Neandertal remains. It may be that the Sima ancestors are related to an even older common ancestor of both Neanderthals and Denisovans, or that another group of mysterious hominins brought their genes over from Siberia.
The new results suggests that the origins of modern humans are more complex than previously thought, and the scientists are carrying out further analysis to try and straighten out the relationships between us and our early ancestors.