Nature 2020 04 1;580(7802):235-238. Epub 2020 Apr 1.
Evolutionary Genomics Section, Globe Institute, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark.
The phylogenetic relationships between hominins of the Early Pleistocene epoch in Eurasia, such as Homo antecessor, and hominins that appear later in the fossil record during the Middle Pleistocene epoch, such as Homo sapiens, are highly debated. For the oldest remains, the molecular study of these relationships is hindered by the degradation of ancient DNA. However, recent research has demonstrated that the analysis of ancient proteins can address this challenge. Here we present the dental enamel proteomes of H. antecessor from Atapuerca (Spain) and Homo erectus from Dmanisi (Georgia), two key fossil assemblages that have a central role in models of Pleistocene hominin morphology, dispersal and divergence. We provide evidence that H. antecessor is a close sister lineage to subsequent Middle and Late Pleistocene hominins, including modern humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans. This placement implies that the modern-like face of H. antecessor-that is, similar to that of modern humans-may have a considerably deep ancestry in the genus Homo, and that the cranial morphology of Neanderthals represents a derived form. By recovering AMELY-specific peptide sequences, we also conclude that the H. antecessor molar fragment from Atapuerca that we analysed belonged to a male individual. Finally, these H. antecessor and H. erectus fossils preserve evidence of enamel proteome phosphorylation and proteolytic digestion that occurred in vivo during tooth formation. Our results provide important insights into the evolutionary relationships between H. antecessor and other hominin groups, and pave the way for future studies using enamel proteomes to investigate hominin biology across the existence of the genus Homo.