Oldest Human DNA Found! I love science.

This is such an exciting time (albeit frustrating) to be a researcher into human evolution.

At 400,000 Years, Oldest Human DNA Yet Found Raises New Mysteries – NYTimes.com.

Scientists have found the oldest DNA evidence yet of humans’ biological history. But instead of neatly clarifying human evolution, the finding is adding new mysteries.

In a paper in the journal Nature, scientists reported Wednesday that they had retrieved ancient human DNA from a fossil dating back about 400,000 years, shattering the previous record of 100,000 years.

The fossil, a thigh bone found in Spain, had previously seemed to many experts to belong to a forerunner of Neanderthals. But its DNA tells a very different story. It most closely resembles DNA from an enigmatic lineage of humans known as Denisovans. Until now, Denisovans were known only from DNA retrieved from 80,000-year-old remains in Siberia, 4,000 miles east of where the new DNA was found.

The discovery is a surprise and forces scientists to rethink the complexity of human evolution of the past hundred thousands of years. The new evidence that has been forthcoming recently strongly suggests human evolution is a very branchy bush with likely more human populations yet to find (all extinct).

This is a straight science story but it’s worthwhile to cover here, I think. Basically, that’s because I’m cynical and I think findings that are so powerful and awesome will get warped and abused by pseudoscientists and anti-science interests, including the religiously inclined. So, let me state this plainly for everyone:

This IN NO WAY means is that evolution is “wrong”. Evolution is a framework for understanding. This new data still fits into that framework, just makes the innards looks far more complicated. We know evolution happens. It’s the way nature works but to figure out the details of how it works is tricky. We are developing ways to tease out the answers or, in this case, to open a new door to lots more questions. The puzzle pieces just multiplied.

This also does not have anything to do with the Bible or aliens or Bigfoot or any other cryptid. I just thought I would make that clear because I suspect people are going to try and wedge it into their favorite outrageous concepts. This is science at work. As our technology has gotten better, we can look even deeper and more carefully into these issues.

Here is a link to the paper (by subscription only) A mitochondrial genome sequence of a hominin from Sima de los Huesos : Nature : Nature Publishing Group.

Excavations of a complex of caves in the Sierra de Atapuerca in northern Spain have unearthed hominin fossils that range in age from the early Pleistocene to the Holocene1. One of these sites, the ‘Sima de los Huesos’ (‘pit of bones’), has yielded the world’s largest assemblage of Middle Pleistocene hominin fossils, consisting of at least 28 individuals dated to over 300,000 years ago. The skeletal remains share a number of morphological features with fossils classified as Homo heidelbergensis and also display distinct Neanderthal-derived traits. Here we determine an almost complete mitochondrial genome sequence of a hominin from Sima de los Huesos and show that it is closely related to the lineage leading to mitochondrial genomes of Denisovans, an eastern Eurasian sister group to Neanderthals. Our results pave the way for DNA research on hominins from the Middle Pleistocene.

I love science.

This NY Times piece is by the outstanding science writer, Carl Zimmer. Want to learn about evolution? Pick up his book.

  8 comments for “Oldest Human DNA Found! I love science.

  1. spookyparadigm
    December 4, 2013 at 2:35 PM

    This is less surprising than the new population announcement alluded to in the article. I need to think some more about this, but it seems like a critical mass is starting to emerge arguing for a broad and complex human gene pool in Eurasia once humans arrive after 2 mya.

    Think about it this way.

    Modern humanity has been alone in its genus for about 25,000 years or so (if you don’t count H. floresiensis). This is also just about when humans first enter the Americas (a little later but not much)

    Modern humanity has existed for about 200,000 years. For 150,000 of those 200,000 years, they lived in Africa or the Middle East only.

    Humans as a genus have lived in Africa and Eurasia for 2,000,000 years.

    Humans lived in Africa only for an additional 500,000 years if you define it by just our genus, and if you include Australopithecus and similar hominins, about 5,000,000 years before the first ones left the continent.

    The last 25,000 years is exceedingly weird (never mind that our population exploded and we lived in unprecedented ways). But even the last 200,000 years of Neanderthals, modern African humans, etc. is only 10% of the time since H. erectus spread from Africa.

    What is becoming clear, and you can see this I think with Dmanisi, is that for that 2,000,000 years, you have a genus/species that is both more and less bushy than we once thought. More bushy in that we keep finding new versions of humans. Less bushy in that they don’t appear to be genetically isolated species, and that perhaps we have overestimated how important minor anatomical differences are in the skeletal record (this is the takeaway of the recent Dmanisi paper).

    The application for the cryptozoology set is that they have no idea how science is working these days. Much of the parlance of cryptozoology derives from older anthropological discussions of various kinds of humans in “race” terms, an obsession that took a long time to burn out of speculation (and one still found in popular and especially “alternative” discussions). But the genetics make a mockery of such a perspective, and have for some time. But we’re now starting to really get a genetic record going, so it is becoming more obvious.

  2. Lowell
    December 4, 2013 at 2:59 PM

    I don’t see why this should surprise anybody. Humans will have sex with anyone, anything, anywhere, anytime.

  3. Chris Howard
    December 4, 2013 at 3:06 PM

    I’m going with non-homo sapien sapiens being the descendants of Cain. Insert racist canards here _________________.

  4. Chris Howard
    December 4, 2013 at 3:06 PM

    I know I will.

  5. Jerry Montero
    December 8, 2013 at 5:32 PM

    Sharon, your love of science is easily understood because science WORKS and is so cool.

    As a dog holds to its bone (following evolution) so does the self hold to blind belief for its survival (following evolution too). Yes, evolution is the driving force behind faith, hope, dogma, and the two greatest discoveries of the human brain–math and science.

    Why didn’t you recommend the best book on evolution so far, Dawkins’s Greatest Show on Earth (2009)?

  6. December 8, 2013 at 6:03 PM

    I haven’t read it yet. I’m sure it’s great but I’m 170 books behind 🙁

  7. Jerry Montero
    December 8, 2013 at 6:30 PM

    Great articles, those you have on csicop.org!

  8. Jerry Montero
    December 8, 2013 at 6:33 PM

    Keep up your excellent work making the dark clouds of pseudoscience go away!

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