Scientists have discovered a femur that contains 400,000 year old DNA from an as yet undiscovered ancestor of modern day humanity. It was discovered at Sima de los Huesos, or “the pit of bones,” in Spain. This same pit has offered 28 other samples of ancient humans. The femur contains DNA that is similar to that of Denisovan, an eastern Eurasian sister group to Neanderthals, and a being which shares a common ancestor with you and I.
The only other evidence of the elusive Denisovan, the ancient human sub species, is DNA from a finger bone and tooth dated to 41,00 years ago, which was found in Siberia, 4,000 miles away. How did this type of DNA get all the way to Spain, and which hominid does the ancient human DNA actually belong to?
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Scientists are able to answer far more questions regarding our origins and early migration patterns out of Africa due to the constant improvements in DNA reading technology and genomic sequencing. According to Juan Luis Arsuaga, a paleoanthropologist at Universidad Complutense de Madrid and a co-author of the paper,
This would not have been possible even a year ago.
One of the reasons this study is so profound is due to how far back it allows us to peer into our past. In 1997, scientists made a breakthrough by sequencing 40,000 year old Neanderthal DNA. In 2006 the record became 100,000 years. Only 7 years later the record has quadrupled to nearly 400,000 years. That is incredible progress.
Of course, more progress means more questions, and it seems that the more accurate our view of the past becomes, the stranger history turns out to be. Our ancient human predecessors were not so similar to us as imagined.
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What we know about modern humanity is that it left Africa in 3 migrations, with each migration separated by two hundred thousand years or more. This theory as a whole is dubbed the “out of Africa hypothesis,” and is generally accepted by the anthropological community. The theory is based on a near endless amount of archaeological studies, genetic, and anatomical studies, and works like this:
- Around 4 – 8 million years ago (still debated) humans, chimpanzees and bonobos began evolving as separate lineages from a common ancestor. This common ancestor shares an older common ancestor with gorillas, orangutans, and gibbons.
- This separated lineage evolved into homo habilis 2.3 million years ago. This is the first early human species to use tools, and walk on the ground on only two legs, instead of living in trees and depending on all 4 limbs for transportation.
- Around 1 million years later, ancient humans evolved into homo erectus (or maybe habilis and erectus lived side by side?) Homo erectus had double the cranial size of its ancestors and was the first human species to walk fully upright. It was also the first species to leave the nest: Africa. Homo erectus left Africa between 1.3 and 1.8 million years ago, and spread through Africa, Asia and Europe. This was the first major migration out of Africa.
- The second major migration involved an evolved form of homo erectus that had remained in Africa called homo heidelbergensis. This migration occured around 600,000 years ago. Homo heidelbergensis is the direct ancestor of neanderthals, denisovan, and homo sapiens.
- Around 200,000 years ago humanity, still in Africa, had evolved into homo sapiens. Homo sapiens left Africa in the third major migration around 125,000 years ago and spread all around the world. Homo sapiens evolved into homo sapien idaltu, now extinct, and homo sapien sapien, commonly referred to as cro magnon. Homo sapien sapien is the only species of human alive today; congratulations, we made it.
This is a very simple, linear explanation, and the truth is that nothing in life, especially when it concerns ancient humanity, is ever that simple. Studies like the first one we discussed have proven that our past is far less linear and extremely complex, leaving anthropologists in constant debate.
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The above explanation doesn’t take into account the countless as yet unnamed ancient human sub species that DNA tests have discovered, nor does it take into account other sub species that existed between the several hundred thousand year gaps between the major evolutionary stepping stones. Examples include homo antecessor , homo ergaster, or homo floresiensis, which scientists have dubbed ‘hobbits’ due to their incredibly small stature yet fully developed brains.
As a clearer picture of our past is revealed, the name ‘hobbit’ becomes increasingly more apt. According to Mark Thomas, an evolutionary geneticist at University College London,
we’re looking at a Lord of the Rings-type world … there were many hominid populations.
Dozens, maybe even hundreds of undiscovered ancient human sup species may have lived side by side, some with a culture and anatomy similar to modern day humans, and others markedly strange. So far, evidence shows that at least 5 different sub species of ancient humans spread throughout Africa, Europe, and Asia, and lived on the planet at the same time. Scientists even found denisovan, neanderthal, and modern human bones all in the same cave.
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Probably the most interesting part of our history is that all of the different ancient human sub species interbred like British royalty, with mystery human sub species spicing up the sex life of our great human ancestors. This is why the DNA of many modern humans is actually a mix,
All modern humans whose ancestry originates outside of Africa owe about 2% of their genome to Neanderthals. Certain populations living in Oceania, such as Papua New Guineans and Australian Aboriginals, share about 4% of their DNA with Denisovan.
These sub species of ancient human were so close that there is 500,000 year old neanderthal and denisovan viruses in modern human DNA.
Ancient human history is far more complex, and incidentally, contains far more inter-sub-species-sex than anthroplogists and historians ever gave it credit for. The recent research discussed above represents the very tip of the iceberg regarding the incredible potential that improved DNA testing has. It’s only a matter of time before we reveal the full truth of our origins and ancient human history.
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Hopefully we will find out all of the answers one day, but for now, Matthias Meyer, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany thinks that,
We’ve basically generated a big question mark.
Ancient humans were more awesome than any of us imagined.