Analysis of the bones challenges conventional thinking about the geographical spread of our ancient cousins, the early human species called Neanderthals and Denisovans. Until now, these sister families of early humans were thought to have resided in prehistoric Europe and Siberia, respectively. (See also: "The New Age of Exploration.")Although the report argues that the Atapuerca remains show a greater similarity to Denisovans than Neandertals, we already know that modern Europeans and East Asians have Neandertal genes in them, indicating that admixture was occurring. Milford Wolpoff has been arguing for decades that archaic Homo sapiens represents a polytypic species that has genetic ties to modern human groups in different parts of the Old World. While it certainly appears that Neandertals were distinctive, this information, in conjunction with various studies (here and here) of the Denisovans and African archaics indicates that this model may be the more correct one.
But paleontologists write in a new study that the bones of what they thought were European Neanderthals appear genetically closer to the Siberian Denisovans, as shown by maternally inherited "mitochondrial" DNA found in a fossil thighbone uncovered at Spain's Sima de los Huesos cave.
"The fact that they show a mitochondrial genome sequence similar to that of Denisovans is irritating," says Matthias Meyer of Germany's Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, lead author of the study, published Wednesday in Nature.
"Our results suggest that the evolutionary history of Neanderthals and Denisovans may be very complicated and possibly involved mixing between different archaic human groups," he said.
Lost in the shuffle, however, is that the ability to recover this DNA is an astounding feat of science and portends for great advances in human palaeontology in the future.