Ancient history

The oldest human genetic material has been discovered... 800,000 years old!

Scientists have managed to extract from tooth enamel the oldest genetic material ever obtained, aged 800,000 years, from a mysterious human ancestor (Homo antecessor), whose fossil was found in a cave near the village of Atapuerka in of northern Spain.

Until now the oldest genetic material from the human family (Homo) was about 430,000 years old and was also found in Spain. In the past scientists have also managed to extract ancient proteins from animal fossils up to almost two million years old (a monkey in China).

The researchers, led by molecular anthropologist Frido Velker of the University of Copenhagen, who made the relevant publication in the journal "Nature", succeeded in recovering the ancient proteins from the fossilized tooth using the method of paleoproteomics, which allows the extraction of genetic material of proteins and not of DNA, which cannot withstand so much time.

It is likely that Homo antecessor (meaning "ancestor of Homo") appeared about a million years ago in southwestern Asia, possibly in the Middle East, from where it moved westward. Although not much is known about him, there are strong indications that he was a cannibal.

In the past some scientists have argued that Homo antecessor was the last common ancestor of the evolutionary line that led to the "arrogant" man (Homo sapiens) and the Neanderthal "cousin".

However, genetic analysis showed that Homo antecessor was different enough to fit into the same evolutionary tree as Homo sapiens and Neanderthals. Probably, according to the researchers, it is a "sister species" of the common ancestor, that is, it was a close relative of the last common ancestor of modern humans and Neanderthals.