Changing Planet

DNA From Ancient Site in Spain Reshapes Human Family Tree

400,000-year-old keleton from Spain, from
400,000-year-old skeleton from Spain, from

Six weeks ago I suggested that 2013 was already the breakthrough year for molecular anthropology, but 2013 is ending with yet another highlight. Yesterday, Nature published a stop-you-in-your tracks piece that scrambles the scientific picture of our ancient relatives.  The world-leading Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany successfully sequenced the mitochondrial genome of a 400,000 year-old ancient human from Spain. The DNA suggests the specimen was maternally related to Denisovans, rather than Neanderthals, which leaves anthropologists puzzled and may be shifting branches around in the human family tree.

Denisovan tooth
Denisovan tooth, from

The term Denisovan, distinct to both modern humans and Neanderthals, was coined just three years ago based on some limited tooth morphology, but predominantly on the distinct DNA sequenced from a 41,000 year-old toe bone found in central Asia. Since then, anthropologists have theorized that Denisovans were contemporary Asian “cousins” to Neanderthals found in Europe and the Middle East, and to modern humans who were already living throughout Africa and were venturing out of the continent for the first time 10,000 years earlier.

Wilma the Neanderthal, by Becky Hale.

That was the accepted story guiding anthropologists just last month.  Now the story has changed and we are scrambling to come up with a new narrative. Is this a different species ancestral to Denisovan, but not Neanderthals? Were there two movements out of Africa before the third and final migration that Homo sapiens took in the last 50,000 years? How many different species of hominids lived in Europe, Africa and Asia in the Pleistocene? And since these beings surely interbred, can we even call them separate species? When the dust settles, a new story of human ancestry will have surely emerged. What do you think was happening back then?

Dr. Miguel Vilar is the Science Manager for National Geographic's Genographic Project. Miguel is also a molecular anthropologist and a science writer. His fieldwork has taken him to remote places throughout the South Pacific, East Africa, Mesoamerica, and the Caribbean. In the laboratory he researches the modern genetic diversity of human populations from Melanesia, Micronesia, North and Central America, and the Caribbean. Miguel has published in several anthropology and genetics journals, as well as popular science magazines.
  • Andrew Allison

    Read Calvin’s “A Brain for All Seasons”, in which he argues that the Sahara, alternately fertile and desert, has “pumped” separately evolving series of humanoids out of sub-Saharan Africa under the influence of climate change.

  • el paco loco

    Earth may have been “under study” by animate sentient folks
    from any number of galaxies for … oh, let’s just go ahead and
    guess eons. We don’t really KNOW anything more about the
    timing than what we know about the times. So, perhaps
    nature has been getting a “helping hand”? If you can’t prove
    it ain’t so, it might be.

  • James Badger

    I believe that God created the whole world as we know it now with these beings, the rock formations, even the entire universe some 7,999 years ago so that we would have to come to a knowledge of God by faith. 1 Corinthians 1:19-29.

  • Anthony

    This is against GOD! Just kidding : )

    It’s crazy that every year when we think we have something figured out we gain new knowledge. Even though we kind of take a step back at least we see that we are uncovering our past more and more.

  • John Stubbs

    What do you think was happening back then?

    Would it be reasonable science to allow the possibility that some highly sophisticated bio-engineering played a part in this?

  • jw

    I am of this DNA.

  • svn

    It might be worthwhile to search for clues in ancient mythologies from India/Greece/Africa. As i learn more about these, i am starting to think we may be re-inventing the wheel… We should understand as much as possible from our forefathers.

  • Alex Garcia

    I believe that this is not another hominid species. I believe Neanderthals and Denisovan were just isolated for so long that they’re phenotypically very different but not necessarily a different species of Hominid. Even today, we find that there are many mtDNA lines that existed in relatively recent times and which are now just extinct.

  • rewward

    we’ll never know. we probably we never get all the evidence. what about other human species we haven’t discovered yet? each year the data, facts and information will change and keep changing, because we will never be able to gather all the evidence.

  • Katrina Hill

    This is very interesting and challenging; to come up with my own answers to the questions posed and then see if i am close or not to what the scientists conclude.

  • William F. Hagen

    The damn things were crawling all over the place. We still can’t get rid of them.

  • Donald Law

    Well as I look at it and knowingly that I have several different ancestors from many areas of the world it is hard to class ones Species except homosapians (humans). So even today everyone wants to say they are this or that but all and all we all are of only one species even though they try to place us in different sections on a tree of human by bones that they find. So the date is a good one and I feel that we all are just one.

  • Bemused

    I have always wondered why these caricatures of the supposed “ancient humans” have african features. It is as if the field of anthropology continues to pedle lies, reinforce stereotypes

  • Elias Souri

    Whenever possible, I suspect, one group in order to maintain territorial integrity, systematically exterminated the other until in time there was only one group left, us. With cultural modifications, that bias to this day continues.

  • Ry McMinn

    I just read this book that deals with this topic, The Atlantis Gene” and I am starting to learn toward a psychotic story of Nazism and genetics and”alien” technology… it just FITS far better than what our government is feeding us… Sigh.. sounds weird to say but feels right in my gut.. and that feeling hasn’t ever made a mistake.

  • Val Magno

    I suspect island biology and speciation similar to the iguanas of the galapagos islands happened early in hominid evolution leading to distinct lineages. Perhaps ice separated communities, or deserts. Then a period of mixing communities again during mild weather. There were probably multiple iterations of this, leading to a really confusing family tree. Follow that by the black plague killing off anyone without some amount of immunity, and you get a bottleneck in evolution, pruning off the majority of lineages and leaving us with a relatively homogenous population in our times.

  • Son of Sasquatch

    My educated guess is there was a lot of indecorous humping going on back then. Today, people might see whites and Asians as being completely differently, physically, culturally, etc. However, unless you were raised by WASPs circa 1870, nowadays, whites and Asians having relationships is not cause for concern. Similarly, I imagine Neanderthals and Denisovans and whatever other humanoidish beings lived during that time, once they got beyond the awkwardness of formally meeting one another, or dominating into submission, found it pretty easy to hump the nights away. We have always assumed that more time and study would produce new twists and links in the human evolutionary chain. What this tells us, like most anthropological studies of this nature, is that humans excel at two things: one-night stands and coming out on top. I wonder if early human precursors thought Homo sapiens were gods, which, if true, is just depressing enough to make you grateful. For what? I have no idea.

  • francisco ward

    We are still mostly modern human >96% on average of african decent and < 4% of primitive other groups. The others are extinct and we are becoming more human every day. Racism is upside down and misguided. We should embrace our african roots.

  • nigel daring

    There has been this long-standing obsession with finding a complete history of human life, the roots of which is an obsession to know who we are. By focusing on archeological finds, we’ve implied that we construe ourselves in solely physical terms. Man is more than flesh. What we should be focused on is the roots of our psychological underpinnings. This is the most important adpect of man. It defines us. We need to understand how we’ve come to view reality a certain way, i.e. in primarily physical terms, so much so that our existential

  • jason

    Shift it around and change it all you want to. All you will ever do is prove more of what we all know. The theories aren’t sound and never have been. We and they are all humans. We were never “hominids” or monkeys.

  • Tom

    Wink-Wink, Nudge-Nudge, Say no more – say no more!

  • Hong Hadj

    When this ancient trail is followed to its oldest point, rather as Livingston did finding the source of the Nile, the origin will be in the area of the Gobi Desert and northwest Vietnam where the Denisovans started it all. Leaky was wrong about Africa.

  • Charlie Franklin

    Common sense would indicate that all Surface Life has seen numerous stages of evolution, then it’s not so difficult to project common sense evolution to Earth itself. We take the common theory that all life began in Africa, a wonderful theory, but how many times have the collective materials that we now know as the African continent, (as with others) been Ocean Bottom? Even more interesting to me is that we’ve for so long, had a very accountable piece of history at our disposal that simply put, said, not all human life came from the very accepted Garden Of Eden. Abel’s brother was instructed to go East Of Eden to find himself a wife, “and when you see her, you will know her “. We all know that the only physical wife for a human male is a human female, not a monkey, gorilla or some other weird stretch of the mind. Would it be a great stretch of imagination, to say that human beings were on every continent of reasonable size??

  • Charlie Franklin

    OOPS! Forgive my human error!!

  • Tyler DeMeo

    I think this shows we know less and less about ancient man. I think the writings of Zacharia Zitchin should definitely be taken more seriously since they have answers for all the anomalys’ that disturb our already accepted theories and prove them null and void ultimately.

  • pogamen

    Denisovans, Neanderthals… I have a second cousin that may belong to a different species (maybe not).

    How many different species lived during the Pleistocene? Response: How many would you like to find?

    What do I think was happening back then? Response: I think pre-historical happenings become historical with every find, proving that humans are much the same – then and now.

    What do I think is happening now? Response: I think He is making your imaginings come true, and as soon as you commit to beliefs, He will help you find the proof that you need. Variety is good. Best of luck on your treasure hunt!
    posted by pogamen 12/5/2013

  • Leonard Marks

    All life began in East New York, probably on Fulton Street, roughly 125,000 years ago. People then ate with their hands, made their own weapons, had sex with whatever slowed down in front of them and used the subways to get around, not so different from today. Life is repetitive, not transformational.

  • shelley west

    I deduce from this article’s comment section, that we are a nation of simpletons. The Denisovans may have been smarter. I suggest we value and fund our educational system and collectively turn off Ancient Aliens.

  • Babu G. Ranganathan

    NATURAL LIMITS TO EVOLUTION: Only micro-evolution, or evolution within biological “kinds,” is genetically possible (such as the varieties of dogs, cats, horses, cows, etc.), but not macro-evolution, or evolution across biological “kinds,” (such as from sea sponge to human). All real evolution in nature is simply the expression, over time, of already existing genes or variations of already existing genes. For example, we have breeds of dogs today that we didn’t have a few hundred years ago. The genes for these breeds had always existed in the dog population but never had opportunity before to be expressed. Only limited evolution or adaptation, variations of already existing genes and traits, is possible.

    The genes (chemical instructions or code) must first exist or otherwise the evolution cannot occur. Genes instruct the body to build our tissues and organs. Nature is mindless and has no ability to design and program entirely new genes for entirely new traits. Nature can only work with the genetic ability already existing in species. Nature cannot perform the genetic engineering necessary to increase that genetic ability.

    Many people have wrong ideas of how evolution is supposed to work. Physical traits and characteristics are determined and passed on by genes – not by what happens to our body parts. For example, if a woman were to lose her finger this wouldn’t affect how many fingers her baby will have. Changing the color and texture of your hair will not affect the color and texture of your children’s hair. So, even if through physical exercise an ape’s muscles and bones changed so that it could walk upright it still would not be able to pass on this trait to its offspring. Only changes or mutations for traits that occur in the genetic code of reproductive cells (i.e. sperm and egg) can be passed on to offspring. Read the author’s popular Internet article, HOW DID MY DNA MAKE ME? Apes, by the way, are quite comfortable in how they walk, just as humans are quite comfortable in how they walk. Even a slight change in the position of a muscle or bone, for either, would be excruciatingly painful and would not be an advantage for survival.

    Modern evolutionists believe and hope that over, supposedly, millions of years random genetic mutations in the genes of reproductive cells caused by environmental radiation will generate entirely new genes. This is total blind and irrational faith on the part of evolutionists. It’s much like believing that randomly changing the sequence of letters in a romance novel, over millions of years, will turn it into a book on astronomy! That’s the kind of blind faith macro-evolutionists have.

    When evolutionary scientists teach that random genetic mutations in species over, supposedly, millions of years caused by random environmental agents such as radiation, produced entirely new genes (i.e. genetic code or genetic information) leading to entirely new forms of life, they are not teaching science but simply a faith, a belief!

    What about natural selection? Natural selection doesn’t produce biological traits or variations. It can only “select” from biological variations that are possible and which have survival value. The term “natural selection” is a figure of speech. Nature doesn’t do any conscious selecting. If a variation occurs in a species (i.e. change in skin color) that helps the species survive then that survival is called being “selected.” That’s all it is. Natural selection is a passive process in nature, not a creative process.

    How could species have survived if their vital tissues, organs, reproductive systems, etc. were still evolving? A partially evolved trait or organ that is not complete and fully functioning from the start would be a liability to a species, not a survival asset. Plants and animals in the process of macro-evolution would be unfit for survival. For example, “if a leg of a reptile were to evolve (over supposedly millions of years) into a wing of a bird, it would become a bad leg long before it became a good wing” (Dr. Walt Brown, scientist and creationist). Survival of the fittest actually would have prevented evolution across biological kinds! Read my Internet article: WAR AMONG EVOLUTIONISTS! (2nd Edition).

    All species of plants and animals in the fossil record are found complete, fully-formed, and fully functional. This is powerful evidence that species did not come into existence gradually by any macro-evolutionary process but, rather, came into existence as complete and ready-to-go from the very beginning, which is possible only by special creation.

    All the fossils that have been used to support human evolution have been found to be either hoaxes, non-human, or human, but not non-human and human (i.e. Neanderthal Man was discovered later to be fully human). Textbooks and museums still continue to display examples and illustrations supporting human evolution which most evolutionists have rejected and no longer support. Many diagrams of ape-man creatures over the years were reconstructed according to evolutionary interpretations from disputable bones that have now been discredited but still being taught in school textbooks.

    What about genetic and biological similarities between species? Genetic information, like other forms of information, cannot happen by chance, so it is more logical to believe that genetic and biological similarities between all forms of life are due to a common Designer who designed similar functions for similar purposes. It doesn’t mean all forms of life are biologically related! Only within a true species can similarities be used as evidence for relationship because only within a true species can individuals be capable of mating and producing offspring.

    Also, so-called “Junk DNA” isn’t junk. Although these “non-coding” segments of DNA don’t code for proteins, they have recently been found to be vital in regulating gene expression (i.e. when, where, and how genes are expressed, so they’re not “junk”). Read my popular Internet article: HOW FORENSIC SCIENCE REFUTES ATHEISM

    The real issue is what biological variations are possible, not natural selection.

    Visit my latest Internet site: THE SCIENCE SUPPORTING CREATION .

    I discuss: Punctuated Equilibria, “Junk DNA,” genetics, mutations, natural selection, fossils, dinosaur “feathers,” the genetic and biological similarities between various species, etc., etc.

    Babu G. Ranganathan*
    (B.A. theology/biology)


    *I have had the privilege of being recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis “Who’s Who In The East” for my writings on religion and science. I have given successful lectures (with question and answer period afterward) before evolutionist science faculty and students at various colleges/universities.

  • Al Bulgari

    This new info is amazing! :-)) All comments are very interesting too. I speculate that there were many “exoduses” out of Africa, over many millions of years. Why Africa? Because the climate around the Tropic is the most mild and stable for most life to flourish and evolve?

    I think we should learn from human behavior today, to gain some clues about what humans and human-like other animals did and why they did it thousands of years ago. Our basic behavior and perceptions haven’t changed much since prehistoric times.
    So, having this in mind, it’s hard to conceive that Homo sapiens will interbreed with other creatures that have significant differences in looks and intellectual capacity. Have these other humanoids been really so different than Homo sapiens then? Could these ancient genomes be something like genetic left-overs from down evolution lane, when Homo sapiens and these other humanoids were united in one common ancestral specie? Rather than evidence for “inter-specie” breeding. How often are those genomes found in modern human populations today?

    One things is certain thought. Fundamental changes are coming to all our paradigms about humanity and human culture, about races, ethnics, evolution and human mind. And I’m absolutely rejoicing about this all!

  • elle

    Probably, the same thing that is happening now with race.

    My theory, not being a stranger to this topic is, the diiferent speices are now what we call races (ethnicities).

    We got a lot of learning, researching, and observing to do. Not guess-timating and filling in blanks. Lets let the story unfold, without jumping to conclusions. It is human nature to try to co-relate to things, it is also human nature to jump to conclusiond, educated or not.

  • Titanium Dragon

    It is pretty obvious at this point that they were subspecies, not actual species, and that they all interbred. So, there was ONE species of humans running around back then – homo sapiens, with neanderthals, sapiens, and denisovans all running around, along with homo floresiensis (which did not apparently interbreed with us) and possibly some other stragglers here and there.

  • Patrick

    Anyone interested in this subject should read The Urantia Book.
    There is NO guesswork in it and it explains EVERYTHING about the history of the human race, including where we came from and how we got to where we are, step by step.

  • simon

    humans aka homo sapiens OUTSIDE of AFRICA only have 1-8% Neanderthal DNA

    Based on the 92% remaining, I only pose 1 question for these commentors,

    Why is it that if we evolved on Earth we have so little adaptation to it? We are the ONLY SINLGLE species on the entire planet that has that.

    We are genetically created by a group of human looking beings , our DNA code has about 4000 splicing accidents. I guess the old testament judaic line of made us in his own image really lines up ;p

  • Nole Buddy

    I believe that there are substantial factors unconsidered. The Ice Bridges for one. The AB Negative blood origin for another. I’m interested in more information on the cross continent migrations between America and Europe, say an ice bridge between Spain/France and the U.S. Possibly allowing migration both ways by foot or water craft following wild game and, or fish/marine life. One thing that will get you moving is to run out of food.

  • Innuendoe

    Well, individuals genetics are affected by existence r time. The degree of affectation is part of the genetic signature. Recent migrations seem to have less of a time affect. ; )

    Writings isn’t a word.

  • Bill G Diaz

    I wish the focus would of one of these articles would be once in a while on: Ooops, scientific predictions as of yesterday were found wrong today, making the score ___. (this is after someone with a lot of time and dedication would have gone thru old news articles and count how many times scientific discoveries are right until they are proven wrong (the same could be said for medical cures and procedures being good for you until found bad for you)

  • jason r

    my opinion is…….that every so often ” 20,000,000 – 50,000,000 ” years we earthlings get smart enough to obliterate our planet except for a few survivors scattered around the globe. and by the time we get smart enough to do it again, 20-50 million, there’s no trace left that we’ve done it before. a vicious cycle. man will destroy himself with his own cunning, right!

  • jason r

    if we were created, then who or what created the creator and so on and so on. or am I not supposed to ask?

  • Dolphy25

    The article ended with the following question: “What do you think was happening back then?” . I would not be surprised if there would be at least four different homonid species living at the same time ” next to each other” and might have interbred, possibly by rapings as is occuring nowadays. Of course these kind of violent occasions were relatively rare. Since agriculture was not invented, they were gartherers-hunters, probably scavengers and maybe even canibalists, and were continously moving in one direction but at a very slow pace. The article presented only the conclusions of the DNA findings and the probable age of the humanoid remains. But it should be brought in a broader context, as the making of fire, stone tools, carvings and paintings to understand the differences in development between the variations of the Homo species.

  • Robert Millar

    Babu G. Ranganathan has managed a considerable achievement: in a feat of intellectual incompetence seldom equaled even by Kent Hovind or Walt Brown, Ranganathan has managed to get every claim in his post wrong. Not only are his claims unbacked by any evidence whatsoever, it is clear Ranganathan operates on the assumption he is not required to provide any [ipse dixit fallacy]. His only reference is to Brown, a creationist so discredited for his asinine hydroplate theory that even Answers in Genesis will not publish his “work”.
    Ranganathan even includes a fallacy of Appeal to Authority regarding Who’s Who, a document anyone may appear in by virtue of buying a membership. So not only is he being disingenuous in his claims, he is being dishonest. Dogma is not a substitute for information.
    For those inclined, I recommend the videos on YouTube “Mathematic Disproof of YEC”, “Noah’s Flood-Mathematically Impossible’ and “Repopulation of Earth by 8 Ark Survivors” by pontecanis, and the excellent series “Why People Laugh at Creationists”, also on YouTube, by Thunderf00t.

  • David

    To Mr. Ranganathan,

    “Special creation” should read, “abrupt mutation” (one that was found to be beneficial to subsequent offspring… The mutations that were not accidentally advantageous to the offspring would perish along with the offspring. There is no god here…!)

  • David Harden, PhD

    The taxonomy of a species and its subdivisions is more an art than a science. I have spent years trying to devise phylogenetic trees based on statistical characteristics. It is not easy to do. The traditional definition of a distinct species is genetic incompatibility which limits interbreeding. Interspecies breeding usually results in infertile offspring or at least reduced fertility. This definition does not say the various “species” of hominids should be lumped in one species because we have no data of reproductive success. The appearance of an implied Denisovan mother in a Spanish child does suggest Denisovans had a wider range than previously thought but it is not shattering any scientific conclusions. The “child” (as in “descendant”, not implying “young”) could easily have migrated across Asia or his mother could have been brought west as spoils of battle or whatever. It adds to our knowledge of Denisovans but does not contradict any theories.

  • Fred

    Is it still true, that if we travel far enough east we will end up in the west? Keep talking its better than fighting!

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (

Social Media