Calcified remains of Altamura Man yield oldest ever Neanderthal DNA sample
Just over two decades ago in the Grotta di Lamalunga, near the city of Altamura in Italy, a team of scientists discovered the remains of a prehistoric hominid branded ‘Altamura Man’. For years, the ancient calcified skull confounded experts, who could not agree on his age, nor the species he belonged to. However, a new study has now determined that Altamura Man is a Neanderthal and, using latest high-tech methods, they have been able to extract a bone sample which represents the oldest DNA ever recovered from a Neanderthal. It is hoped that the sample may shed new light on the early history of our ancient cousins.
Altamura Man was first discovered in 1993 by a team of speleologists, who were investigating a karst borehole, formed by the action of running water on limestone that is composed of a complex system of caves. The remains were embedded in rock and were covered in a thick layer of calcite, so researchers were unable to remove Altamura Man for study as it was thought that excavating the remains would cause irreparable damage.
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“It is believed that Altamura Man wound up in such a peculiar spot after falling in a well and getting stuck,” reports Phys.org, “it is assumed he starved to death, or died from lack of water intake”.
Speleologist from the Centro Altamurano Ricerche Speleologiche (CARS) investigates inside Grotta di Lamalunga ( Ministero dell’istruzione ).
The inability to remove Altamura Man from the rock in which he is embedded has made studying and dating his remains difficult. The skeleton was first thought to be an example of Homo heidelbergensis and in the range of 400,000 to 100,000 years before present.
However, a new paper published in the Journal of Human Evolution reports that a new analysis has revealed the bones are between 128,000 and 187,000 years old and belong to the genus Homo neanderthalensis. The research team were able to draw their conclusion after they successfully extracted a small bone sample and examined it.
Altamura Man, surrounded by limestone deposits. ( Wikipedia)
The team also reports that samples of DNA were retrieved from the sample, representing the oldest such sample ever recovered from Neanderthal remains.
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“The researchers next plan to test the DNA sample to see if it can be sequenced,” reports Phys.org. “If so, they are hopeful it might reveal new details about the evolution of hominids in general and perhaps more about the early history of the Neanderthal.”
Featured image: Altamura Man, surrounded by limestone deposits in the Grotta di Lamalunga ( Image Source )