The oldest known evidence of Neanderthals is recorded in the DNA of fossil humans from the site of Sima de los Huesos, Spain.
The Sima fossils, which include 28 early human individuals, look very similar to the species Homo heidelbergensis, an ancestor of Neanderthals. The new DNA study confirms, however, that the Sima individuals were actually the oldest known Neanderthals.
The Sima fossils are 430,000 years old. By this time the Neanderthal gene pool had diverged from the genetically distinct Denisovans of Asia.
Based on these findings, the European Neanderthals and the African ancestors of Homo sapiens also must have separated by this early date – offering an intriguing new clue as to when our species first became distinct.
The research was reported in the journal Nature by Matthias Meyer and colleagues on March 17, 2016.