|H. heidelbergensis from Atapuerca|
Cranium 5 "Miguelón"
(CC by José Manuel Benito)
About half an hour ago, somewhat cryptic comments in this blog and my email woke me up, more abruptly than I would have desired maybe, to a new game-breaking finding: researchers have sequenced the mtDNA of a 400,000 years old Homo heidelbergensis from Atapuerca (Iberian Peninsula, Europe) and it was not at all like most would have expected.
Mathhias Mayer et al., A mitochondrial genome sequence of a hominin from Sima de los Huesos. Nature 2013. Pay per view → LINK [doi:10.1038/nature12788]
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 fossils2, 3, consisting of at least 28 individuals4 dated to over 300,000 years ago5. The skeletal remains share a number of morphological features with fossils classified as Homo heidelbergensis and also display distinct Neanderthal-derived traits6, 7, 8. 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 Denisovans9, 10, an eastern Eurasian sister group to Neanderthals. Our results pave the way for DNA research on hominins from the Middle Pleistocene.
The key figure is this one, which phylogenetically relates the newly sequenced mtDNA with the known Homo ones:
It has been argued by all sides (myself included) that the H. heidelbergensis of Atapuerca and other European locations are ancestral to Neanderthals. Some say that also to H. sapiens, while others argue that ours is a wholly distinct line, derived from H. rhodesiensis, and yet others claim that H. rhodesiensis is not different from H. heidelbergensis in spite of being older and rooted, it seems, in South Africa.
The clear evidence for migrations out of Africa, before our species, is limited to two periods: (1) the c. 1.8 Ma old migration of H. erectus/georgicus with Olduwayan technology (mode 1, "choppers"), and (2) the c. 1 Ma old migration of H. ergaster/antecessor (sometimes also confusingly called H. erectus) with Acheulean technology (mode 2, typically "hand axes"). Archaeological evidence for later migrations does not exist.
See: Late human evolution maps at Leherensuge.
So we could well ask, if H. heidelbergensis is not ancestral to Neanderthals, then where do Neanderthals come from?
It must be answered that we do not know yet if H. heidelbergensis is or not ancestral to Neanderthals or in what degree it is. The mitochodrial (maternal) lineage may well be misleading in this sense. Denisovans themselves were much more related to Neanderthals via autosomal (nuclear) DNA than the mtDNA, so it may also be the case with European Heidelbergensis.
In fact it is still possible that these individuals represent some sort of admixture between older and newer layers of human expansion. But there is no clear answer yet. What is clear is that no Neanderthals have these mitochondrial sequences but others closer to those of H. sapiens - and this is the most puzzling part in fact.
But one thing is clear: the World is much bigger than just Europe, and that was also the case back in Paleolithic times. Our answer may well lay under the sands of some tropical desert, the waters of the sea or whatever other place in Asia or Africa.
Even if we'd find the "missing link", so to say, we might not be able to discern it as such without genetic sequencing and that is often not even possible at all. However this pioneer research, as well as its precursors on a bear also from Atapuerca and a 700,000 years old horse (the true record of ancient DNA recovery), give us some hope of getting an improved, even if sometimes perplexing, understanding of the complexity of the human adventure.