The Mystery of Altamura Man

Neanderthals are a species or subspecies of Hominids within the genus Homo that went extinct some 40,000 years ago. Neanderthals and modern humans share 99.7% of their DNA. Since humans have inherited 1 to 4 percent of their DNA from Neanderthals, we must have had sex with our ancestral brothers and sisters (scientists call this 'interbreeding')[1]. To produce offspring, both species must be genetically very close. Therefore my suggestion is that it would probably be better to regard both modern man (Homo sapiens) and Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) as subspecies of Homo sapiens, which means that the former should be called Homo sapiens sapiens and the latter Homo sapiens neanderthalensis.
In 1993, a fossil hominin skeleton was discovered by cave explorers in the karst caves of Lamalunga, near Altamura, in southern Italy. The remains were embedded in rock and were covered in a thick layer of calcite, leaving only the head and part of a shoulder visible. They lie in a karst borehole rich in limestone amid running water. It was thought that excavating the remains would cause irreparable damage and thus, they have remained in situ for over twenty years, leaving researchers to rely on casual observation for their studies. For that reason, there was some debate initially about morphology and age.

Recently, the retrieval from the cave of a tiny fragment of the right shoulder blade allowed the first dating of the individual, indicating that it belongs to Homo neanderthalensis (or Homo sapiens neanderthalensis), with some peculiarities that appear consistent with a date of around 150,000 years ago (~187,000 to ~128,000 years)[2]. Thus, the skeleton from Altamura represents the most ancient Neanderthal from which endogenous DNA has ever been extracted. And that's a feat in itself.

[1] Lari et al: The Microcephalin Ancestral Allele in a Neanderthal Individual in PloS One – 2010. See here.
[2] Lari et al: The Neanderthal in the karst: First dating, morphometric, and paleogenetic data on the fossil skeleton from Altamura (Italy) in Journal of Human Evolution – 2015

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