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Skeletons buried in 'pit of bones' cave for 430,000 years belonged to earliest known relatives of Neanderthals

Mirror Mirror 15/03/2016 By Mark Waghorn
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A mass of bones buried in a Spanish cave for 430,000 years have been revealed to belong to the earliest relatives of Neanderthals ever found.

The 28 skeletons were discovered in a cave dubbed Sima de los Huesos or the 'pit of bones', which was first uncovered in the Atapuerca Mountains in northern Spain in 1983.

But it has taken more than 30 years from when they were first excavated for scientists to have the technological capability to properly analyse them and discover their true origin.

The team extracted and sequenced DNA from the 7,000 bones to prove they belonged to the earliest relatives of Neanderthals ever discovered and fill a gap in the jigsaw of human evolution.

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Previous research showed the group's mitochondria - DNA that is only inherited from the mother - was distantly related to Denisovans, an extinct type of early human found in Siberia.

But the skeletons looked more like Neanderthals and had their thick brows and heavy jaws.

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New techniques allowed the scientists to scan their nuclear DNA, found in the centre of all cells in the body and confirm the mysterious hominins were indeed among the first Neanderthals.

Professor Juan-Luis Arsuaga, a paleontologist at the Complutense University of Madrid, has led the excavations at Sima de los Huesos for three decades.

He said: "We have hoped for many years advances in molecular analysis techniques would one day aid our investigation of this unique assembly of fossils."

"We have thus removed some of the specimens with clean instruments and left them embedded in clay to minimise alterations of the material that might take place after excavation," he added.

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The nuclear DNA sequences recovered from a tooth and thigh bone show the individuals are more closely related to Neanderthals than Denisovans.

Dr Svante Paabo, of the Max Planck Institute, said: "These results provide important anchor points in the timeline of human evolution.

Read more: Ancient jawbone reveals Neanderthals bred with modern humans 'in Europe' - and thousands of years earlier than first thought

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"They are consistent with a rather early divergence of 550,000 to 750,000 years ago of the modern human lineage from archaic humans."

Dr Matthias Meyer, a palaeo-geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig in Germany, praised the archaeologists who had excavated the bodies buried 30-metres underground.

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He said: "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."

"The recovery of a small part of the nuclear genome from the Sima de los Huesos hominins is not just the result of our continuous efforts in pushing for more sensitive sample isolation and genome sequencing technologies," he continued.

"This work would have been much more difficult without the special care that was taken during excavation."

The researchers say retrieval of further mitochondrial and nuclear DNA from Middle Pleistocene fossils could help to clarify the evolutionary relationship between Middle Pleistocene hominins and those who lived in the Late Pleistiocene period such as Denisovans and Neanderthals.

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