Category Archives: Research

An Israeli and Catalan team is trying to solve the mysteries surrounding the presence of 1.5 million-year-old stone balls at some sites

This collaboration is led by the IPHES and is funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation

It is presently unknown how these tools were developed or what they were used for and high-tech 3D artifact analysis will be used for this research


Stone balls are present in some Oldowan and Acheulian stone-tool assemblages, the oldest human cultural complexes known to humankind, dating to around 1.5 million years old. Their presence has puzzled researchers for more than half a century and still, little is known about how and why they acquired this shape, or what their uses might have been. Although some in the scientific community believe that these tools, known as spheroids, were intentionally manufactured, others claim that their form was obtained accidentally through percussion activities. In addition, some researchers have proposed that their morphology must reflect a specific function, or perhaps even some kind of social or symbolic norm.

Scanned 3D image of a limestone spheroid from the ‘Ubeidiya archeo-paleontological site (Israel) with associated dimensional data.

Now, a team of Catalan and Israeli specialists will try to find answers to the questions surrounding spheroids, by analyzing more than 200 spheroidal morphotypes found in the ‘Ubeidiya site (Israel). They want to find out if these objects were intentionally manufactured using a specific operating sequence, whether they are the result of heavy use for pounding, or if they were used as hammerstones. Different experiments are planned to obtain results helping to determine whether or not spheroids are the result of a complex cultural scheme involving mental planning.

Doctoral students Antoine Muller (HUJI) and Stefania Titton (URV) at Computational Archeology Laboratory of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem analyzing digital images obtained from ‘Ubeidiya spheroids (Photos D. Barsky).

This is the aim of the Lower Paleolithic Spheroids Project (LPSP), directed by IPHES researcher Deborah Barsky (Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social) and associate professor at the URV (Rovira i Virgili University of Tarragona), in collaboration with the Computational Archeology Laboratory of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (CAL-HUJI, Israel) and Tel Hai College (Upper Galilee); funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation (Germany).

Robert Sala, Josep Maria Vergès and Stefania Titton are among participating members from the IPHES and the URV (Rovira i Virgili University of Tarragona), with Leore Grosman and Antoine Muller from CAL-HUJI, and Gonen Sharon from THC.

This international team aims to apply the new analytical methodologies offered by the Computational Archeology Laboratory (CAL) of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Israel) to study a set of over 200 spheroidal limestone tools from the Early Acheulian site of ‘Ubeidiya (Israel), dating to around 1.5 million years ago, with the purpose of developing a methodological holotype for future interpretations.

Conference by Stefania Titton: “The Barranco León site (Orce, Spain) and the European Oldowan” was attended by students and professors of the Department of archeology of the HUJI.

In the first phase of this project, Deborah Barsky, lead project researcher, and Stefania Titton (a URV doctoral student), recently traveled to Jerusalem to work with experts from the CAL (HUJI) to create high precision 3D digitized artifact models for the geometric morphometry study using the associated computer software, developed and provided by this institute. Also during this visit, Stefania Titton delivered a conference about European Oldowan technology, attended by members of the Department of Archeology of the HUJI.

The next phase of the project will be to experimentally reproduce spheroid morphologies using the same limestone as that of the ‘Ubeidiya site. This investigation will allow the researchers to compile computer data obtained from digital reproduction of both the archeological and experimental spheroids. This data will be stored and shared among researchers working on similar topics.

Contributions from this project are expected to provide an operative multidisciplinary methodology to define and analyze spheroids more objectively, broadening our understanding of their presence during the Oldowan to Acheulian transition in the global archeological record.

IPHES and URV participate in the study of two new skulls of Homo erectus up to 1.5 million-years-old

The skulls were presented today in the Science Advances journal

These new skulls were found at Gona, in the Afar Triangle of Ethiopia, close to the area where “Lucy” was discovered

The researcher Isabel Cáceres analyzed the fossil remains found next to these skulls and confirmed mammal exploitation by these hominins

The association of Oldowan and Acheulian tools with these crania endorses a cultural and behavioral complexity of this species that has yet to be fully understood

DAN5 cranium, the smallest skull of Homo erectus recovered in Africa. Photo: Michael J. Rogers/SCSU.


Two new skulls of Homo erectus found at Gona (Ethiopia) were published today in the Science Advances journal by an international team led by Sileshi Semaw, researcher at CENIEH (Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana) (Burgos, Spain) and Michael Rogers at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU) (USA), where Dr. Isabel Caceres, researcher from the Universitat Rovira i Virgili (URV) and the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES) (Tarragona, Catalonia), participates since 2013. Gona is located in the Afar Triangle that is beside to the well-known study areas of Middle Awash and Hadar, where the famous skeletons “Ardi” and “Lucy” were found, respectively.

One of these skulls is a nearly-complete hominin cranium estimated to ~1.5 million years (Ma) ago and was discovered at the site of Dana Aoule North (DAN5). The other one is a partial cranium dated to ~1.26 Ma ago and was recovered from the Busidima North site (BSN12).

Cutmark on a medium-sized long bone from DAN5 related to defleshing activities.

DAN5 cranium has the smallest endocranial volume documented for H. erectus in Africa, about 590 cubic centimeters. This skull is gracile and bears some similarities with the small individuals discovered at Dmanisi (Georgia). The BSN12 partial cranium is robust and large (800-900 cc.) similar to OH9 individual from Olduvai Gorge. The small size of the DAN5 cranium suggests that it could belong to a female individual and, therefore, that H. erectus was probably a sexually dimorphic species.

Map of the Gona study area showing locations of BSN12 and DAN5.

Both crania were associated with simple Oldowan-type (Mode 1) and more complex Acheulian (Mode 2) stone tool assemblages. Thus, instead of finding only the expected large handaxes or picks (tools typically associated with H. erectus), the Gona team found both well-made handaxes and plenty of less-complex Oldowan tools and cores. This suggests that Homo erectus had a degree of cultural/behavioral plasticity that has yet to be fully understood.

Oldowan (a) and Acheulian (b) stone tools recovered in DAN5. Photo: Michael J. Rogers/SCSU.

The hominins at both sites lived close to ancient rivers, in an environment with riverine woodlands adjacent to open habitats. The low δ13C isotope value from the DAN5 cranium (from the right molar) is consistent with a diet dominated by C3 plants (trees and shrubs, and/or animals that ate these plants) or, alternatively, by broad spectrum omnivore.

Isabel Cáceres studied the taphonomy of the faunal remains from the deposits where the two skulls were found, that is, the study of bone surface modifications the fossils present. While in BSN12 no anthropic evidences were identified, in DAN5 the use of stone tools was evident in defleshing and marrow consumption activities in animals of different size. This implies that H. erectus butchered large, medium and small mammals, although it has not been established whether these were obtained by hunting.

Isabel Cáceres during fieldwork at Gona sites.

In conclusion, DAN5 and BSN12 sites at Gona are among the earliest examples of H. erectus associated with Oldowan and Acheulian stone tool assemblages. The investigations carried out at Gona have clearly shown that Oldowan technology persisted much longer after the invention of the Acheulian. This is an indicative of a particular behavioral flexibility and cultural complexity of H. erectus.

The spread of steppe and Iranian-related ancestry in the islands of the Western Mediterranean

IPHES researchers Beatriz Gamarra and Marina Lozano, from the Paleoanthropology department, have collaborated in this research


The Mediterranean Sea has been a major route for maritime migrations as well as frequent trade during prehistory, yet the genetic history of the Mediterranean islands is not well documented despite recent developments in the study of ancient DNA.

An international team led by Researchers from the University of Vienna, Harvard University and University of Florence, Italy, is filling in the gaps with the largest study to date of the genetic history of ancient populations of Sicily, Sardinia and the Balearic Islands, increasing the number of individuals with reported data from 5 to 66.

The results reveal a complex pattern of immigration from Africa, Asia and Europe which varied in direction and timing for each of these islands. IPHES researchers Beatriz Gamarra and Marina Lozano, from the Paleoanthropology unit, have collaborated in this research. Beatriz Gamarra, now postdoctoral fellow Beatriu de Pinós at IPHES, during her previous period at University College of Dublin (UCD, Ireland), prepared some of the bone samples that were later analyzed by the leading authors of this research in the ancient DNA laboratories of UCD, University of Vienna and Harvard University. Marina Lozano, IPHES researcher and Associate Professor at URV, analyzed the human remains of Cave 127 (Formentera) providing the samples of these individuals and the anthropological context of this site.

Beatriz Gamarra (left) with Marina Lozano, IPHES researchers

Some of the paper’s most striking findings concern the island of Sardinia. Despite contacts and trade with other Mediterranean populations, ancient Sardinians retained a mostly local Neolithic ancestry profile until the end of the Bronze Age.

However, during the second half of the 3rd millennium BC, one of the studied individuals was of entirely of North African ancestry. Together with two Iberians reported in 2019, this new more than 1% of studied individuals from southern Europe from the Copper and Bronze Ages were part of immigrant families from North Africa.

“Our results show that maritime migrations from North Africa were widespread and important long before the era of the eastern Mediterranean seafaring civilizations and moreover were occurring in multiple parts of the Mediterranean”, says Ron Pinhasi, a co-senior author of the department of Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Vienna.

During the Iron Age expansion and establishment of Greek and Phoenician colonies, the Sardinian individuals analyzed from that period had little, if any, ancestry from the previous long-established populations.

“Despite these population fluxes, modern Sardinians retained 56-62% of ancestry from the first Neolithic farmers that arrived in Europe around 8000 years ago”, says David Caramelli a co-senior author, and Director of Department of Biology at the University of Florence.

The team’s results on Sardinia are fully consistent with the findings of another paper on ancient Sardinian genetics published on the same day in the journal Nature Communication and led by John Novembre, Johannes Krause and colleagues.

The paper also goes beyond Sardinia to understand population changes in other central and western Mediterranean islands.

“One of the most striking findings concerns the arrival of ancestry that ultimately came from the Russian Steppe. While the ultimate origin of this ancestry was Eastern Europe, in the Mediterranean islands much of it arrived from the west, and in fact we can pinpoint Iberia as its specific source”, says David Reich, a co-senior author at Harvard University, who is also an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. “This was likely also the case for the Balearic Islands, in which some early residents probably derived at least part of their ancestry from Iberia”, says first author Daniel Fernandes, of the department of Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Vienna.

Sicily was also impacted from the east by a different movement. People with ancestry related to ancient Greek “Mycenaeans” reached Sicily at a time overlapping the period of Mycenaean trade connections to the island. An important direction for future ancient DNA work will be to determine whether it was Greek migrants, or people from further east in the Mediterranean, who carried this ancestry to Sicily.


Fernandes, D.M., and alter 2020. “The spread of steppe and Iranian-related ancestry in the islands of the western Mediterranean”. Nature Ecology and Evolution.

El Mirador cave at Atapuerca provides new data on the beginning of the farming practices at the Meseta

Tarragona has held a scientific transdisciplinary meeting on prehistoric farmers


IPHES (Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social evolution) has recently held a scientific workshop focused on the research on El Mirador cave (Atapuerca), organized by Ethel Allué (IPHES-URV), Patricia Martín (Universitat de Barcelona) and Josep Maria Vergès (IPHES -URV). The objective of this meeting was to encourage the discussion among assistants and stablish future collaborations to progress in the knowledge on the beginning of farming practices in the Meseta.

The scientific workshop had 13 oral communications in which 57 co-authors, coming from 14 national and international institutions, participated.  A wide range of problematics was approached based on 21 disciplines. It is noteworthy the presence of researchers from IPHES and URV (Universitat Rovira i Virgili de Tarragona), such as Palmira Saladié (IPHES URV), Marina Lozano (IPHES URV), Isabel Expósito (IPHES) and Miquel Guardiola (IPHES). There were also contributions presented by doctoral researchers and Master students from the Erasmus Mundus in Quaternary Archaeology and Human Evolutionprogram, which is taught at URV thanks to the research, developed at IPHES. Some of the students developed their research on El Mirador cave.

Among the study scopes that have been analysed there were presentations on the paleoclimatic context and paleoenvironment provided by different interdisciplinary studies; agriculture and livestock practices, that were approached from archaeobotany, zooarchaeologyl, micromorphology, analytical chemistry and taphonomy on the formation of the fumier deposit (acumulation of burnt dung).

It is noteworthy the presence of researchers from IPHES and URV (Universitat Rovira i Virgili de Tarragona) and Master students from the Erasmus Mundus in Quaternary Archaeology and Human Evolution program

In addition, there were presentations on the cave as a funerary deposit and on the human remains. A diversity of subjects were discussed such as diet, pathologies, and genetics or ritual practices such as cannibalism. With the obtained data we were able to advance in the knowledge of human groups that lived in the cave between approximately 7.000 and 3000 years. There were also presentation on material culture including technology and ceramics.

El Mirador cave has been excavated since 1999 and has provided a sequence with Pleistocene and Holocene layers and is an essential sequence to understand specially the beginning of the introduction of agriculture and livestock practices of the Meseta.  This cave was mainly used for sheep and goat stabling. These animals’s dung was systematically burnt in the cave to reduce volume and remove parasites. This process forms the so-called fumier deposits, being the one at El Mirador one of the best preserved. It is important to outline that during the Chalcolithic the cave was used as collective burial.

The scientific meeting also included an exhibition of materials (“El Mirador: 20 years of research”) and two photographic series (“El Mirador: 20 years in 10 images” and “El Mirador: a look through the Microscope”).

The participants came from several institutions, part of the Atapuerca Project, such as Jaime Lira (UCM-ISCIII) and Ángel Carrancho (University of Burgos), as well as other collaborators such as Ana Polo (University of Sheffield), Iñigo Olalde (Pompeu Fabra University), Javier Iglesias (Complutense University). The well-known geneticist Carles Lalueza-Fox (Pompeu Fabra University), who gave a keynote presentation, attended the meeting. The scientific meeting also included an exhibition of materials (“El Mirador: 20 years of research”) and two photographic series (“El Mirador: 20 years in 10 images” and “El Mirador: a look through the Microscope”).

A study provides new data on the bears preserved in the site of Dmanisi in the Caucasus 1.8 million years ago

The journal Scientific Reports, edited by the Nature group, clarifies the characteristics of the species Ursus etruscus, the ancestor of the Cave Bear lineage

Three members of IPHES participate in this research: Tsegai Medin, Bienvenido Martínez-Navarro and Florent Rivals


The Dmanisi site, 1.8 million-years-old, is located in the Republic of Georgia, in the heart of the Caucasus, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. This paleontological locality records the earliest human presence located outside Africa. In addition, it preserves an extraordinary collection of paleontological remains, with a variety of spectacular extinct mammals. This collection of fossils is deposited, together with many others from the rich Georgian sites, in the National Museum of Georgia, in Tbilisi, and is now under study.

This study has been performed by three researchers from the IPHES (Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution) and the Prehistory Area of ​​the URV (Rovira i Virgili University of Tarragona) -Tsegai Medin (fellow of the Atapuerca Foundation), Bienvenido Martínez-Navarro and Florent Rivals (ICREA Research Professors)-, together with other paleontologist from the National Museum of Georgia –David Lordkipanidze, Gocha Kiladze and Giorgi Kopaliani-,  the University of Málaga-Borja Figueirido and Paul Palmqvist-, and the ICP (Catalan Institute of Paleontology Miquel Crusafont) – Joan Madurell-Malapeira-. They have carried out the classification of the bear fossil remains that inhabited the emblematic paleoanthropological Early Pleistocene site of Dmanisi, and have described the diet of this extinct species. For doing so, the study has combined the anatomical study with the use of morphometric data and other techniques for estimating dental microwear, which have allowed comparing the Dmanisi bears with other fossil and extant species.

The jaw of the bear of Dmanisi – Bienvenido Martínez-Navarro/IPHES

The teeth of the Dmanisi bear show a wide variation in size and correspond to the species Ursus etruscus, described two centuries ago, in 1823, by the great French paleontologist Georges Cuvier. Therefore, the systematic adscription of this ursid has been subject to controversy; in fact, in 1995, the late Professor Abesalom Vekua, from the Georgian Academy of Sciences, based on the high differences in size among the specimens, considered that there were two different species at Dmanisi, Ursus etruscus and Ursus sp. However, in this study it is observed that, regardless of size, all the specimens show a very similar anatomical variability. For this reason, the huge differences in the size of teeth are the result of an accused sexual dimorphism, where males are considerably larger than the females, as happens in the modern brown bears as well as in other fossil species. Ursus etruscus is also very well represented in the deposits of Orce: Venta Micena, Fuente Nueva-3 and Barranco León, the last two associated with human presence, as in Dmanisi.

The analysis of tooth microwear reports that the Dmanisi bears lived in a mixed environment, with prairies and patches of open forest, where they fed on fruit, tubercles and tree leaves, complementing their diet with variable amounts of meat and fish. Also, the comparative morphometric analysis of this fossil species with modern bears (brown, polar, Tibetan, etc.) confirms that the species of Dmanisi had an omnivorous diet, similar to that of the current brown bear, Ursus arctos.

The study also allows to discuss, based on this new evidence, on the ecological interactions of this fossil bear with other elements of the fauna, including the first hominins that dispersed outside Africa. It is especially interesting the relationship among the different omnivorous species, basically hominins, bears and pigs, which eat a variety of general foods, vegetable and animal products.

The study concludes that the degree of competition between hominins and bears was less than previously considered, because during the cold winter months, when edible leaves and soft fruits were scarce in the middle latitudes, hominins would have more dependence on animal products (meat and fat) and dry fruits (acorns, nuts, chestnuts, tubers, etc.) and bears would be hibernating. The study also concludes that pigs, which are active during the winter season, would maintain a greater competition with hominins, and this fact could possibly contribute to its extinction in Europe shortly after, disappearing from the European ecosystems during half a million years, until the latest Early Pleistocene, around 1.2 million-years-ago.

Bibliographic reference
Tsegai Medin., Bienvenido Martínez-Navarro, Joan Madurell-Malapeira, Borja Figueirido, Giorgi Kopaliani, Florent Rivals, Giorgi Kiladze, Paul Palmqvist, and David Lordkipanidze, 2019. “The bears from Dmanish and the first dispersal of early Homo out of Africa.” Scientific Reports,

The last Neanderthal necklace

Found for the first time in the Peninsula: remains of personal ornaments with eagle talons from the Neanderthal Period 

These remains are older than 39,000 and were found in the cave Foradada in Calafell, they were probably part of a necklace

This use of eagle talons as ornaments could have been a cultural transmission from the Neanderthals to modern humans, who adopted this practice after reaching Europe

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Eagle talons are regarded as the first elements used to make jewelry by Neanderthals, a practice which spread around Southern Europe about 120,000 and 40,000 years ago. Now, for the first time, researchers found evidence of the ornamental uses of eagle talons in the Iberian Peninsula. An article published in the cover of the journal Science Advances talks about the findings, which took place in the site of the cave Foradada in Calafell (Tarragona, Spain). The article was led by Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo, researcher at the Institute of Evolution in Africa (IDEA), researcher at the IPHES (Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social) and member of the research team in a project of the Prehistoric Studies and Research Seminar (SERP) of the UB (University of Barcelona). Palmira Saladié is another author and she’s researcher at the IPHES too and teacher at the Rovira i Virgili University.

The interest in these findings lies in the fact that it is the most modern piece of the kind so far regarding the Neanderthal period and the first one found in the Iberian Peninsula. This circumstance widens the temporary and geographical limits that were estimated for this kind of Neanderthal ornaments. This would be “the last necklace made by the Neanderthals”, according to Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo.

“Neanderthals used eagle talons as symbolic elements, probably as necklace pendants, from the beginnings of the mid Palaeolithic”, notes Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo. In particular, what researchers found in Cova Foradada are bone remains from Spanish Imperial Eagle (Aquila adalberti), from more than 39,000 years ago, with some marks that show these were used to take the talons so as to make pendants. The found remains correspond to the left leg of a big eagle. By the looks of the marks, and analogy regarding remains from different prehistorical sites and ethnographic documentation, researchers determined that the animal was not manipulated for consumption but for symbolic reasons. Eagle talons are the oldest ornamental elements known in Europe, even older than seashells Homo sapiens sapiens perforated in northern Africa.

Imperial eagle phalanx from Cova Foradada and Neanderthal skull

The findings belong to the châtelperronian culture, typical from the last Neanderthals that lived in Europe, and coincided with the moment when this species got in touch with Homo

Morales, researcher in the program Juan de la Cierva affiliated at SERP and signer of the article, presents this use of eagle talons as ornaments could have been a cultural transmission from the Neanderthals to modern humans, who adopted this practice after reaching Europe.

Cova Foradada covers the most meridional châtelperronian culture site in Europe. The discovery involved a change in the map of the territory where the step from Middle Palaeolithic to Upper Palaeolithic took place 40,000 years ago, and where interaction between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens sapiens probably took place. Studies in Cova Foradada started in 1997. At the moment, the supervision of the excavation is led by Juan Ignacio Morales and Artur Cebrià. The archaeological study of this site is included in a SERP project funded by the Department of Culture of the Catalan Government and another funded by the Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities, headed by UB professor and SERP director Josep M Fullola.

In addition to researchers mentioned above, the article is also signed by members of the Museum the Natural History Museum of Paris, the University of Salamanca, the University of Calgary (Canada) and the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).

Reference of the article

A. Rodríguez-Hidalgo et al. 2019. “The Châtelperronian Neanderthals of Cova Foradada (Calafell, Spain) used imperial eagle phalanges for simbòlic purposes”. Science Advances.

Genetic data from 1.7 million years ago identified, the oldest recorded to date

The journal Nature has reported the finding of a rhinoceros tooth at the site in Dmanisi, Georgia, where members of IPHES and the URV are working

Molar found in Dmanisi and which has provided the genetic information discussed in the article

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A recent finding has paved the way to a revolution in the study of evolution after an international team working in Dmanisi (Georgia) has acquired genetic data from a 1.7-million-year-old rhinoceros tooth, the oldest to have been identified to date. The data acquired is a full set of proteins – a proteome – identified in the animal’s dental enamel and is 1 million years older than the oldest DNA sequenced from a horse and which dates back 700,000 years.

The finding was announced in an article published in the journal Nature, which was authored by leading scientists from the University of Copenhagen and Saint John’s College (University of Cambridge). However, the project also counted on the participation of 48 other researchers, two of whom were ICREA (Catalan Institute of Research and Advanced Studies) researchers from IPHES (Catalan Institute of Human Palaeoecology and Social Evolution) and the URV (Universitat Rovira i Virgili): Bienvenido Martínez-Navarro, who studies the large carnivores at Dmanisi (bears, hyenas and sabre-toothed tigers), and Jordi Agustí, who analyses the small mammals from the same site, which has become one of the main sources of information on the first humans.

Molar found in Dmanisi and which has provided the genetic information discussed in the article. Credits: Natural History Museum of Denmark

The finding reported in Nature is a major advance in the field of biomolecular studies into ancient fossil remains and may provide an answer to some of the mysteries of animal and human biology, enabling scientists to accurately reconstruct evolution over time, now from much further back in the past.

In the last 20 years, ancient DNA has been used to tackle a variety of questions about the evolution of extinct species, adaptation and human migration, but it has its limits. The new genetic information will make it possible to reconstruct molecular evolution beyond the habitual time limits of the preservation of DNA, so the analysis of ancient protein from dental enamel is the start of an exciting new chapter in the analysis of molecular evolution, as the scientists participating in the study have been quick to point out.

The DNA data that genetically track human evolution only cover the last 400,000 years. But the lineages that led to modern humans and chimpanzees – the living species that is genetically closest to humans – separated some 6 or 7 million years ago, which means that the scientific community currently has no genetic information for 90% of the evolutionary path that has led to modern humans.

Neither does the scientific community know how we are genetically linked to extinct species such as Homo erectus – the oldest species known of the genus Homo with human body proportions similar to those of Homo sapiens. Everything known about Homo erectus at the moment is almost exclusively based on anatomic, not genetic, information.

Stephonorhinus rhinoceros skeleton. Credits: Natural History Museum of Denmark.

The researchers used ancient sequencing technology (based on the innovative technology known as mass spectrometry) to retrieve genetic information from the tooth of a 1.7-million-year-old Stephanorhinus, an extinct species of rhinoceros that lived throughout Mediterranean Europe and in western Asia. They managed to sequence the ancient protein and retrieved genetic information that had been impossible to obtain with DNA sequencing.

Tooth enamel is extremely hard, abundant and long-lasting. It is found in mammals and provides more genetic information than collagen, the only other protein that has been retrieved from fossils more than a million years old. As a result, applying mass spectrometry to this material opens up a wide range of possibilities for a more advanced evolutionary study in both humans and mammals, and it will revolutionise research methods based on molecular markers.

Molecular phylogenetic analyses show that the Stephanorhinus rhinoceros comes from a group related to the woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis). This shows that Coelodonta evolved from a primitive representative of Stephanorhinus which, therefore, has at least two evolutionary lines.

This rearrangement of the evolutionary lineage of a single species may seem like a mere small adjustment, but the identification of changes in numerous extinct mammals and humans may lead to a new understanding of how the world has evolved. The discovery may enable scientists from all over the world to collect genetic data  from ancient fossils and construct a larger, more accurate picture of the evolution of hundreds of species, including our own.

Bibliographic reference. Cappellini et al., “Early Pleistocene enamel proteome from Dmanisi resolves Stephanorhinus phylogeny”, Nature  (2019).