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It will come to no surprise to people who noticed an earlier paper on cave bear mtDNA from Atapuerca that the folks at the Max Planck Institute would try to do the same for the plentiful human remains found in the Pit of Bones.
A new paper in Nature reports their success, and overnight increases by an order of magnitude the time depth for which we now have human mtDNA from what is commonly designated as Homo heidelbergensis, from right in the middle of the Middle Pleistocene. Obviously, this opens new vistas for archaeogenetic research, making it possible to directly look at early pre-sapiens forms of humans, and not only on their final forms prior to their replacement, the Neandertals and Denisovans.
The most impressive aspect of the new paper is most likely the technical challenges that the researchers must've overcome to achieve this result. The cave bear DNA showed that this was possible, but human DNA adds an additional complication in the form of contamination by a closely related species, us.
But, the new evolutionary result which will interest those of us not interested in the minutiae of biomolecules will no doubt be the fact that the Sima hominin's mtDNA formed a clade with the much more recent Denisova girl.
This is very interesting stuff, homo Heidelbergensis is more closely related denisovans than to Neanderthal.
'But, the new evolutionary result which will interest those of us not interested in the minutiae of biomolecules will no doubt be the fact that the Sima hominin's mtDNA formed a clade with the much more recent Denisova girl'
Until now, we knew that Neandertal mtDNA grouped together and so did modern human mtDNA. The two groups shared a Middle Pleistocene common ancestor and a much more distant common ancestor (~1 million years) with the mtDNA found in Denisova. The new Sima specimen shares descent from Denisova. This is important because it shows that whatever archaic human population the Denisovan mtDNA belonged to also extended to western Europe. And, surprisingly, the Sima specimen did not group with Neandertals, as might be expected because of the incipient Neanderthaloid morphology of the Sima hominins which has been a matter of controversy as it pushes back the evolutionary lineage of H. neandertalensis deeper into the Middle Pleistocene that some researchers accept.
Before this paper, it was believed that H. heidelbergensis evolved somewhere (perhaps Near East or Africa), a subset of it evolved to H. sapiens in Africa, and a different subset evolved in Eurasia, leading up to H. neandertalensis in the west, and unknown forms in the east, of which the Denisova girl was a matrilineal descendant. The next question is: when did Neandertals and Neandertal mtDNA appear in Europe?