DNA was just retrieved and sequenced from a 400,000-year-old representative of the genus Homo. The resulting near-complete mitochondrial genome sequence, detailed in this week's Nature, is now the oldest of its kind for any human species.
It revealed that Homo heidelbergensis, aka Heidelberg Man, lived during the Middle Pleistocene and shared a common ancestor with Denisovans, a group that migrated out of Africa early and later wound up in Siberia with a few other Homo species.
"In Africa a million years ago, they were all one group it seems, and then the ancestors of present-day humans and Neanderthals separated from the ancestors of the people that carried the Denisova mitochondrial DNA," co-author Svante Pääbo, director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, told Discovery News.
The latest genetic analysis shows "that we can now study DNA from human ancestors that are hundreds of thousands of years old," he said. "This opens prospects to study the genes of the ancestors of Neanderthals and Denisovans. It is tremendously exciting."