Scientists have sequenced the oldest human DNA ever, extracted from 430,000-year-old samples of fossilised tooth and a thigh bones, found in Spain’s Sima de los Huesos, which translates to “pit of bones”.
In doing so, the team from Germany has found evidence that the ancient ancestors of modern humans must have split from the ancestors of Neanderthals hundreds of thousands of years earlier than we thought, which means it might be time for us to redraw the human family tree.
Located in the Cueva Mayor-Cueva del Silo cave system in north-central Spain, the Sima de los Huesos archaeological site contains the largest and oldest collection of human remains ever discovered, with more than 6,500 fossilised bone fragments – including over 500 teeth alone – from at least 28 individual hominins having been uncovered so far. With remains dating back to 430,000 years ago, the famous “pit of bones” is finally allowing scientists to reconstruct the human family tree far beyond the past 100,000 years, and in doing so, have brought into question some long-held assumptions about how our early ancestors first came to be.
“It’s fascinating and keeps us all on our toes trying to make sense of it all,” palaeoanthropologist Chris Stringer from the Natural History Museum in London, who wasn’t involved in the research, told Nature Magazine. “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.”