December 6, 2013 - Researchers have read strands of ancient DNA teased from the thigh bone of an early human that died 400,000 years ago in what is now northern Spain.
The genetic material was pieced together from a clutch of cells found in bone fragments - the oldest human remains ever to yield their genetic code.
The work deepens understanding of the genetics of human evolution by some 200,000 years, raising hopes that researchers can build a clearer picture of the earliest branches of the human family tree by studying the genetic make-up of fossilised remains dug up elsewhere.
"This is proof of principle that it can be done," said Matthias Meyer at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. "We are now very eager to explore other sites of a similar age."
The thigh bone was among the remains of at least 28 early human ancestors found at the bottom of a vertical shaft in a cave complex in the Atapuerca mountains in northern Spain. The Sima de los Huesos, or "pit of bones", lies 30m underground and half a kilometre from the cave system's nearest current entrance.
The individuals at Sima de los Huesos looked a little like Neanderthals, and many anthropologists classified them as Homo heidelbergensis, a potential forerunner of modern humans. The corpses at Sima de los Huesos were likely washed into the pit rather than buried intentionally.