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Researchers at the University of Copenhagen have successfully isolated the oldest human genetic material to date, from an 800,000-year-old human fossil.

The ancient DNA was harvested from a tooth belonging to the species Homo antecessor. It was discovered by palaeoanthropologist José María Bermúdez de Castro and his team in 1994 at the Gran Dolina cave site in Spain. By using mass spectrometry, the team was able to isolate proteins from the enamel of the tooth, allowing them to sequence its genetic information and discover where this species fits in the human family tree.

The study gives us insight into humanity’s past going back much farther than previously considered possible, said the Danish researchers.

It is generally known that humans and chimpanzees split, genetically speaking, about 9–7 million years ago. However, we don’t have a very clear picture of how many different human species there were at the time and how they related to one another. The problem is that all these other human lineages are now extinct, plus genetic material tends to break down over time. Much of what we know on the topic so far is based on DNA analysis of samples no older than around 400,000 years, or direct observations of the shape and structure of early human fossils.

“Now, the analysis of ancient proteins with mass spectrometry, an approach commonly known as palaeoproteomics, allow us to overcome these limits,” says Enrico Cappellini, Associate Professor at the Globe Institute, University of Copenhagen, and leading author on the paper.

The findings suggest that Homo antecessor isn’t, in fact, the last common ancestor for us and the Neanderthals, but rather a closely related relative of that ancestor.

“I am happy that the protein study provides evidence that the Homo antecessor species may be closely related to the last common ancestor of Homo sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovans. The features shared by Homo antecessor with these hominins clearly appeared much earlier than previously thought. Homo antecessor would therefore be a basal species of the emerging humanity formed by Neanderthals, Denisovans and modern humans”, says José María Bermúdez de Castro.

The research was made possible by a 10-year-long collaboration between experts in fields including paleoanthropology, biochemistry, proteomics and population genomics, which allowed the team to retrieve and read proteins of such incredibly old age. The paper ‘The dental proteome of Homo antecessor’ has been published in the journal Nature.

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