Human evolution, the most ancient DNA of a Neanderthal belongs to Altamura Man
Altamura man, a fossil skeleton of the genus Homo found over 20 years ago in a cave in Apulia, seems to date back to approximately 150,000 years ago. This was shown in a study recently published in the Journal of Human Evolution, carried out by the Sapienza University of Rome and the University of Florence. The study results show that the skeleton seems to store the most ancient DNA of a Neanderthal ever extracted so far.
An authentic paleontological treasure is stored in Apulia, in the Alta Murgia area. This is the skeleton of the Altamura Man, discovered by chance in 1993 in a cave in the karstic area of Lamalunga by a team of speleologists and brought to the attention of the scientific community by researchers of the University of Bari.
Over twenty years after this discovery, a study recently published in the Journal of Human Evolution provides new evidence on the age and features of this finding. Data published confirm that the skeleton belongs to a Neanderthal Man, a species of the Homo genus that was widespread in Europe between at least 200,000 and 40,000 years ago. More precisely, the Altamura Man is supposed to have lived approximately 150,000 years ago, an ancient phase of the existence of Neanderthals. Researchers assume that the hominid fell in a well in the karstic area of Lamalunga and he died there of starvation. Later on, the skeleton was covered with droplets of limestone that helped preserve it from external factors and brought it to us.
The research project started in 2009 and was carried out by an interdisciplinary team coordinated by Giorgio Manzi, Sapienza University of Rome, and David Caramelli, University of Florence, in cooperation with local authorities and Soprintendenza Archeologica of Apulia. Dating was made by using extremely advanced techniques that allowed to draw a part of the shoulder bone from the skeleton – that is still trapped in the cave – and to analyse the DNA of this fragment.
The early genetic data allow to consider the Altamura skeleton as the most ancient Neanderthal from which portions of genetic material were extracted. Investigations on the sample as well as those carried out on a number of stalactite fragments by the Uranium-thorium dating technique showed that the calcium formations that stratified on the site rocks and on the skeleton started to deposit in Medium Pleistocene, in a period ranging from 172,000 and 130,000 years ago, during the penultimate quaternary period glaciation.
Yet, Altamura Man could have more surprises in store. Although in Europe and in the Neat East there are a number of fossil samples that can be referred to Homo neanderthalensis, none of them has a degree of completeness and a preservation status similar to those of the finding of Apulia. Moreover, due to the antiquity of the DNA stored in the Altamura hominid, this fossil skeleton could be a good candidate for particularly interesting genomic analyses. “There is still much to learn from such a human finding”, said paleoanthropologist Giorgio Manzi.
Manzi concluded by saying that the Altamura Man is a great treasure for Alta Murgia, an area that is rich in prehistorical findings, including a trail of dinosaur footprints. “We hope that in the near future this fossil skeleton can be the cornerstone of a virtuous combination of scientific research, heritage preservation and its full promotion”.