400,000-year old bones discovered at an archaeological site in northern Spain could revolutionise the way we think about evolution.
The oldest remains of our ancestors ever found, they have been painstakingly excavated and pieced together over the past two decades.
Analysis of their DNA has helped place them on the human family tree – a tree which appears to have many more branches than we previously imagined.
“Before this discovery, we had no data from this period, but with this new methodology and thanks to this exceptional site, we have been able to gain insight into a very, very distant past,” says the co-director of the Atapuerca archaeological site, Juan Luis Arsuaga.
Comparison of the fossils’ genetic code with that from other humans yielded a surprise.
Rather than showing a close relationship with our ancestors the Neanderthals, the fossils are genetically much closer to a population unearthed thousands of kilometers away in Siberia. Very little is currently known about this population, the Denisovans, a sister group of the Neanderthals – with distinct genetic characteristics – who inhabited Siberia until 40,000 years ago.
“It allows us to better understand how the evolution of the Neanderthals occurred, the characteristics of our species, the relationship between different species and the evolutionary lineages in these chronologies, close to half a million years ago,” says Juan Luis Arsuaga.
Excavations continue at Atapuerca in Spain which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for providing what the organisation calls “an invaluable reserve of information about the physical nature and the way of life of the earliest human communities in Europe”.