Skulls reveal Neandertal’s hodge-podge genealogy

Fossil treasure trove shows nuances in hominid family tree

3:26pm, June 19, 2014

NEANDERTAL IN THE MAKING  Hominids living in Spain some 400,000 years ago had facial features of Neandertals, such as the protruding teeth and lack of a chin seen in this newly analyzed fossil, but had not yet evolved the big brain cases seen 200,000 years later in full-blown Neandertals. 

The Neandertal branch of the hominid family tree just got a lot more shrublike. Ancient skulls from a desolate Spanish cave have a hodge-podge of Neandertal and non-Neandertal features, suggesting the species underwent a long period of evolutionary fits and starts before emerging as full-fledged Neandertals some 200,000 years ago.

A battery of dating techniques indicates that the 17 skulls, seven of which were analyzed for the first time, are roughly 430,000 years old. The age means the fossils are the oldest reliable evidence of recognizable Neandertal features, says paleontologist Juan Luis Arsuaga of Complutense University of Madrid, who led the new analysis. The ancient age also suggests that the Neandertals’ evolutionary roots reach much farther back in time than that of humans, whose characteristic features don’t appear in the fossil record until some 200,000 years ago in Africa.

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