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article imageSkeleton in Italy contains oldest Neanderthal DNA ever discovered

By Megan Hamilton     Apr 14, 2015 in Science
Altamura - A cave in Italy has given up one particularly fascinating gift: A skeleton containing the oldest Neanderthal DNA ever discovered.
Scientists studying the ancient skeleton have dated the molecules found within to about 130,000 to 170,000 years ago.
A new study evaluating the DNA from a piece of the right shoulder blade suggests that the fossil skeleton, discovered in 1993, was a Neanderthal, the closest extinct relative of modern humans, according to Live Science, reports.
Discovered in 1993 by spelunkers hiking in the Lamalunga cave, the Altamura Man (as he is known) apparently fell into a well inside the cave, located deep under the town of Altamura, CNN reports.
The spelunkers told researchers at the University of Bari what they had discovered.
The scientists realized that Altamura Man was a wonderful specimen, and while his skull was intact, the rest of his bones were jumbled and the entire fossil was wedged into a maze of stalactites and stony calcite pebbles that were built over time by water dripping over them for thousands of years. Worried that extracting the bones would shatter them, the researchers decided to leave him in his rocky grave, CNN reports.
"The Altamura Man represents the most complete skeleton of a single nonmodern human ever found," study author Fabio Di Vincenzo, a paleoanthropologist at Sapienza University of Roma, told Live Science. "Almost all the bony elements are preserved and undamaged."
Altamura Man shows a number of Neanderthal traits, especially in his face and the back of his skull. While Neanderthal skulls are well known for possessing heavy brow ridges, his skull takes that a bit further — the brow ridges are more massive than those generally seen in Neanderthals. This made it difficult to tell which human lineages Altamura Man may have belonged to. Another challenge is the fact that the skeleton is partially embedded in rock, making things difficult for scientists trying to analyze it.
Along with the fact that the research suggests that the DNA collected was that of a Neanderthal, the shape of the skeleton's right shoulder blade (where the sample was taken) looks like that of a Neanderthal, the researchers said.
The bone, however, is so old that its DNA is too degraded and researchers can't really sequence the fossil's genome — at this point in time, Live Science reports. However, the future may bring new DNA-sequencing technologies that may be capable of such a task. That "could provide important results on the Neanderthal genome," said study co-author David Caramelli, a molecular anthropologist at the University of Florence in Italy.
Many previous fossils of different Neanderthals are somewhat fragmentary and provide a partial glimpse into the lives of these magnificent people. The Altamura skeleton may fill that picture in more completely. It may reveal more details about the genetics, anatomy, ecology, and lifestyles of Neanderthals, the researchers said.
"We have a nearly complete human fossil skeleton to describe and study in detail. It is a dream," Di Vincenzo told Live Science. "His morphology offers a rare glimpse on the earliest phase of the evolutionary history of Neanderthals and on one of the most crucial events in human evolution. He can help us better understand when — and, in particular, how — Neanderthals evolved."
The scientists' findings were published on March 21 in the online Journal of Human Evolution.
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