The remarkably preserved fossil known as Altamura man is not only the most complete Neanderthal skeleton known, but also now the source of the oldest DNA from our extinct cousin.
Even before the latest success, the skeleton known as Altamura Man had an important place in the study of human evolution. Located in one of the Lamalunga caves near Altamura, Italy, the fossil was discovered in 1993 surrounded by limestone and animal fossils swept in by heavy rains. However, the Altamura man himself is thought to have fallen into a well and starved, eventually being cased in limestone.
Debate has raged over whether Altamura Man was a Homo heidelbergensis, a Neanderthal, a member of Homo sapiens, or some sort of hybrid or unknown species. In any of those cases other than Homo sapiens, the unfortunate individual would represent the most complete skeleton known from a member of a species of the human genus other than ourselves. Moreover, since European Neanderthal fossils are widespread but generally very incomplete, Altamura man stands out as a treasure trove of information about our closest extinct relatives.
Unfortunately, however, the same calcite that protected the bones has also concreted them to the cave so that they cannot be removed without damage. This has also made dating the skeleton a challenge.
Altamura man has a number of features associated with Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalenesis), such as the shape of his eye sockets and the back of his skull. However, the brow ridges are even more prominent than those of Neanderthals, leading to speculation that this may have been a member of a previous species.
In the Journal of Human Evolution, a large group of researchers reveal the first dating of the fossil and the extraction of some DNA, both resulting from the retrieval of a fragment of the right scapula (shoulder blade).
The authors conclude that Altamura man “belongs to the hypodigm of Homo neanderthalensis, with some phenetic peculiarities that appear consistent with a chronology ranging from 172 ± 15 ka [thousand years ago] to 130.1 ± 1.9 ka.” Anything other than the youngest end of this range would make this the oldest Neanderthal genetic material retrieved, although still well short of the 400,000 year old Denisovan genetic material found in northern Spain, the oldest known human DNA.
The DNA is too degraded to be sequenced with current techniques. However, co-author Dr. David Caramelli of the University of Florence described it as “a highly suitable candidate for interested genomic analyses,” which may benefit from new-generation genetic technologies.
The entire Neanderthal genome has already been extracted from the toe bone of a Siberian Neanderthal, but if useful information can be extracted from Altamura man, it will provide contrasting insight into the European arm of our extinct relatives, as well as an earlier stage of their evolution. While traits we associate with Neanderthals first appear as far back as 600,000 years ago, true Neanderthals appear in the fossil record 200,000-250,000 years ago.