In 1970, Russian paleontologist Andrei V. Sher found, in the eternally frozen land of Siberia (hence the name permafrost) the remains of countless mammoths; one, the researchers estimated that he had died 1.2 million years ago. It took half a century for researchers to recover what was most precious of these remains: their DNA, the oldest in the world.
“This is the first time that DNA from specimens from millions of years has been sequenced and authenticated, and extracting it from molar teeth has been a challenge,” said paleontologist and evolutionary geneticist Love Dalén, from the Center for Paleogenetics, linked to the Swedish Museum of Natural History and the University of Stockholm. The other two mammoths whose DNA has been analyzed are 1, 700 thousand years old.
Even though “mammoth” is for many people the Ice Age Manny, there were 17 species all over the planet – Manny was an emperor mammoth, often mistaken for the Columbian mammoth, which inhabited North America during the last ice age, while the woolly mammoth wandered where Canada is today. A million years ago, however, none of them existed. In Siberia, there was only the steppe mammoth – at least, that was thought.
Unique in the Americas
“It was a complete surprise: our DNA analyzes show that there were two different genetic strains,” says the study’s lead author, geneticist and evolutionist Tom van der Valk, adding that this animal may have been the only one of its kind to inhabit the Americas for a long time.
The new species received the name of mammoth Krestovka, because it was found near this small Siberian village; the researchers believe that the new species diverged from the strain then prevalent over two million years ago.
Special conditions were necessary for the DNA to survive to be analyzed by the international team of researchers, led by geneticists from the Swedish University of Uppsala. Of humans, the oldest ever sequenced is 15,000 years old; of Neanderthals, 120,000 years old, while of an animal the record goes to an ancestor of the horse, which ran on what is now the frozen soil of Canadian Yukon territory 700,000 years ago.