Neanderthal Ancestor Skulls Shed Light on Evolution
Scientists in Spain have pieced together and studied 17 early Neanderthal skulls. Their findings allow for more precise evolutionary positioning and characterisation of Middle Pleistocene Hominidae.
The skulls were recovered from Sima de los Huesos (Spanish for ‘pit of bones’) in Northern Spain, and were studied by Juan Luis Arsuaga Ferreras and his colleagues at the UCM-ISCIII Joint Centre for Research into Human Evolution and Behaviour in Madrid.
The remains were dated at around 430’000 years old, too old for the Neanderthals, but common features suggest the bones more than likely originate from their forerunners. The skulls displayed facial features consistent with Neanderthals, such as protruding faces, prominent brow ridges and small molar teeth, while other cranial features were resemblant of older species, suggesting that facial features evolved first in Neanderthals.
Arsuaga says these changes were brought about by extensive use of the frontal teeth and suggests that they used their teeth for grip, allowing two hands free, one to steady the object and the other to cut it with a tool. Many of the front teeth have been scratched by tools, suggesting they often missed.
Genetic drift is the alternative theory offered by Jean-Jacques Hublin at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. He stated that ‘some of these facial features might essentially have been fixed at random by genetic drift’.
Regardless of cause, Arsuaga considers the study as new evidence that Neanderthals evolved in stages and says ‘it is now clear that the full suite of Neanderthal characteristics didn’t evolve at the same pace’.
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