430,000-year-old nuclear genome sequences confirms affinities
Sima de los Huesos (‘Pit of Bones’)is a small muddy chamber lying at the bottom of a 13 m (43 ft.) chimney, lying deep within the Cueva Mayor system of caves in the Sierra de Atapuerca of northern Spain. Hominin remains were first reported there in the 1970s, and to date the remains of 28 individuals have been recovered. The Sima hominins lived around 430,000 years ago and while conventionally described as Homo heidelbergensis, they share some derived features with Neanderthals. This has led some to suggest that they are very early Neanderthals.
In 2014, mitochondrial DNA was obtained from the thighbone of one of the Sima hominins. It was expected that it would show affinities to later sequences obtained from Neanderthals, but instead it suggested that the Sima hominins were more closely related to Denisovans. However, mitochondrial DNA does not reveal the full picture of relationships among populations, so researchers set about the more difficult task of obtaining nuclear sequences from the Sima remains.
Genetic material was recovered from an incisor and a molar tooth, a fragment of a thighbone and a shoulder blade. Useful sequences were obtained from the incisor tooth and the thighbone fragment. The results have shown that the Sima hominins were, after all, more closely related to Neanderthals than they were to Denisovans. The Sima hominins were thus either early Neanderthals or closely related to the ancestors of Neanderthals after diverging from a common ancestor shared with the Denisovans. The age of the Sima remains is compatible with earlier estimates that the Neanderthal/Denisovan split occurred between 381,000 and 473,000 years ago. Based on the correctness of these estimates, modern humans diverged from Neanderthals 550,000 to 765,000 years ago – too early for later examples of Homo heidelbergensis such as Arago or Petralona to belong to a population ancestral to both Neanderthals and modern humans. The true common ancestor may be Homo antecessor, which was present in Spain from 1.2 million to 800,000 years ago and might have been responsible for the hominin footprints discovered at Happisburgh, England, in May 2013. However, this species has yet to be identified in Africa and may be a European variant of Homo erectus that migrated from Asia.
The Denisovan affinities of the mitochondrial DNA are still unexplained. One possibility is that the common ancestor carried mitochondrial lineages present in both, but later eliminated from the Neanderthals. The authors noted that this requires an explanation for the presence of two deeply divergent mtDNA lineages in the same archaic group, one that later recurred in Denisovans but disappeared from the Neanderthals; and one that became fixed in Neanderthals. The required explanation might be later population bottlenecks that are known to have affected Neanderthal populations. However, the authors preferred explanation is that the mitochondrial genomes of later European Neanderthals was acquired by interbreeding with hominins from Africa. This might explain the absence of Neanderthal-derived morphological traits in some European Middle Pleistocene hominins such as Ceprano and Mala Balanica.
Meyer, M. et al., Nuclear DNA sequences from the Middle Pleistocene Sima de los Huesos hominins. Nature (Published online) (2016).