A fierce debate revolves around whether Neandertals, who lived in Europe and the Middle East from around 130,000 to 28,000 years ago, belonged to the human species or a separate one.
A new technique for probing fossil anatomy has generated support for the designation of Neandertals as a separate species, according to a report in the Aug. 2 Nature. Fossil analyses indicate that from infancy to adulthood, the Neandertal skull exhibited a markedly different trajectory of shape changes from that observed in modern humans, say anthropologists Marcia S. Ponce de León and Christoph P.E. Zollikofer of the University of Zurich, Switzerland.
"Characteristic differences in cranial and mandibular [jaw] shape between Neandertals and modern humans arose very early during development, possibly prenatally, and were maintained throughout [life]," the researchers conclude.