National Geographic News
Photo of skull 17.

An early Neanderthal skull uncovered from the Sima de los Huesos cave. Seventeen skulls have been discovered there.

Photograph by Javier Trueba, Madrid Scientific Films

Dan Vergano

National Geographic

Published June 19, 2014

Beauty—of a sort—beat out brains among Neanderthals, report researchers analyzing a 430,000-year-old cache of skulls collected from the "Pit of Bones" cave site in Spain.

The Neanderthals were a prehistoric species of early humans, famously stumpy looking, thick boned, and big nosed, who lived in Europe and western Asia before disappearing from the fossil record by about 28,000 years ago. (Related: "Neanderthals ... They're Just Like Us?")

The 17 skulls discovered in Spain's Sima de los Huesos (Pit of Bones) cave and reported in the journal Science show that early Neanderthals sported their telltale "beetle brows" and heavy jaws about 430,000 years ago, long before they evolved Neanderthal features in their crania, including larger brains.

"These are the earliest Neanderthals," says study leader Juan Luis Arsuaga at the Centro Mixto UCM-ISCIII de Evolución y Comportamiento Humanos in Madrid. "They can tell us a great deal about the evolution of Neanderthals, and by comparison, about modern humans."

The new study adds to evidence that the Neanderthals developed their characteristic looks slowly, and patchily, over hundreds of thousands of years, Arsuaga says. The ancient world likely was filled with a potpourri of archaic humans that included these early Neanderthals, he suggests, their numbers waxing and waning between ancient ice ages that arrived every hundred thousand years or so.

"What I have been telling people is that it was like Game of Thrones," says Arsuaga, referring to the popular fantasy book and cable television series. "There were a few spread-out populations, some related, some not, emigrating or going extinct over time. And winter was always coming."

Graphic showing where Sima Hominin lies within the human evolution lineage during the Middle Pleistocene.
JUAN VELASCO AND MAGGIE SMITH, NG STAFF. PHOTOS: ROBERT CLARK. SOURCE: MATTHIAS MEYER, MAX PLANCK INSTITUTE FOR EVOLUTIONARY ANTHROPOLOGY; Juan Luis Arsuaga, Universidad Complutense de Madrid

Game of Bones

At the end of a 1,640-foot-long (500 meter) cave in northern Spain, the Sima de los Huesos pit is a deep depression, more than 46 feet (14 meters) below a shaft from the surface. Underneath a layer of dirt filled with cave bear bones, the pit holds an "astonishing, and even beautiful, collection of human fossils," says paleontologist Chris Stringer of London's Natural History Museum by email.

Some 6,500 human bones belonging to at least 28 individuals—the world's largest collection in any one place of ancient human fossils—have turned up in excavations there since 1976. "There are tons of bones," Arsuaga says.

The skulls in the study, seven of them newly described, bear about two dozen facial features, among them the enlarged flat molars, heavy jaws, protruding snout, thick cheekbones, and heavy brows that typify more recent Neanderthals, ones less than 200,000 years old.

While Stringer views the Sima de los Huesos skulls as belonging to early Neanderthals, paleontologist Ian Tattersall of the American Museum of Natural History in New York views them as a separate group of early humans. "The Sima hominids [members of the human family] have a number of Neanderthal features, mainly in the face, but are clearly not full-blown Neanderthals," Tattersall says. (The study itself leaves this open as a possibility, suggesting the Sima skulls may belong to a subspecies of Neanderthals or to a related earlier species.)

Photo the area inside the Sima de los Huesos cave in Spain where skull fragments are located.
These skull fragments are from Sima de los Huesos, the "Pit of Bones."
Photograph by Javier Trueba, Madrid Scientific Films

Every Face Tells a Story

The evolution of Neanderthal's doughty looks has been tied to surmounting Arctic conditions during the ice ages. However, the cave site 430,000 years ago was only a little cooler and drier than today, Arsuaga says, arguing against this explanation.

But if the Sima's ancestors had become isolated from other early humans, their distinctive Neanderthal facial features could have evolved randomly through "genetic drift" and become fixed in the population, suggests paleontologist Jean-Jacques Hublin of Germany's Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in a commentary accompanying the study.

Arsuaga instead suggests that strong Neanderthal jaws may have evolved to maximize bite force in their front teeth, pointing to some change in diet or habits among them more than 400,000 years ago. Only one stone tool, a hand ax, has been found among the fossils at the site, however, so there is nothing to suggest new hunting techniques flourished among the Sima humans.

While they have Neanderthal faces, the skulls in the cave lack the cranial development of later Neanderthals, Hublin notes. (Some had bigger brains than those of modern people, but most didn't.) Later Neanderthals evolved even larger brains than the Sima ones.

Arsuaga suggests the combination of Neanderthal facial features alongside smaller crania in the Sima de los Huesos skulls argues for a branching, bumpy pattern in early human evolution across prehistoric Europe—what he calls the accretion model—rather than a smooth development of the species. There's no guarantee that the Sima Neanderthals were even ancestors of later Neanderthals, he says. They might have belonged to a branch that eventually died out.

Photo of researches inside the cave.
Paleontologists unearth fossils at the Spanish cave site.
Photograph by Javier Trueba, Madrid Scientific Films

Distant Relatives

Evidence for that sort of bumpy early human evolution came in December, when a team led by Matthias Meyer, also of the Max Planck Institute, reported that maternally inherited "mitochondrial" DNA found in a fossil thighbone at the Spanish cave matched that of a different early human group from Neanderthals. (See: "Discovery of Oldest DNA Scrambles Human Origins Picture.")

Instead, the mitochondrial genes matched those seen in a group called the Denisovans, known only from a Siberian cave. (Read how they were discovered in "The Case of the Missing Ancestor" in National Geographic magazine.) That raised the question of what Russian early human DNA was doing in Spanish fossils.

The Sima team now argues that those genes likely were an inherited leftover from a more ancient human species that lingered in the Spanish Neanderthals, something that Meyer agrees is "very plausible." More recent studies also point to Neanderthals and Denisovans both sharing DNA with more ancient human species.

Modern people of European and Asian descent also share some Neanderthal and Denisovan genes, about 2 percent for the former. That points to interbreeding among modern humans and early human species within the last 60,000 years, when our ancestors left Africa to spread worldwide. (See: "Neanderthal Genes Hold Surprises for Modern People.")

Photo of skull 15 from the cave.
This nearly complete skull displays Neanderthal facial bones.
Photograph by Javier Trueba, Madrid Scientific Films

What is really fascinating, Meyer says, is that the Sima de los Huesos site, which has the most complete record of early human fossils from prehistory, is also the only known site with DNA preserved from that earlier period of human evolution.

"This is an amazing coincidence and fortunate for science," Meyer says, by email. "It also means that some of the hypotheses derived from morphological [physical characteristics] analyses may ultimately be testable by means of genetics."

So how did the pit of bones end up full of so many early human fossils? That,  says Arsuaga, "is the biggest mystery in paleontology." Some observers have suggested the cave was a death trap, where foolhardy Neanderthals fell to their deaths.

But Arsuaga says the simplest answer is that their fellows deposited them there. "There are still a lot of bones. We may find 50 skulls before we are done."

Follow Dan Vergano on Twitter.

40 comments
Jana Dawson Frazier
Jana Dawson Frazier

This is the simplicity that science (and most of us) refuse to accept......no matter what continent you hail from...no matter what your heritage.....no matter what your skin color....we are ALL related.  


matthew mizell
matthew mizell

Could the Neanderthals have disappeared do to homosapians hunting and killing them because they were different? 

Judith MacInnis
Judith MacInnis

I can't help but wonder why the Neanderthals disappeared - they were robust, able to withstand cold temperatures, and sophisticated enough even to make clothing.  Does the discovery of so many of their bones deposited together in a pit perhaps suggest that sister groups of early humans warred against each other?

Christopher Ball
Christopher Ball

430,000 year old scull, please, you are so so wrong, your timing/dating is based on radiometric dating, and radiometric dating is based on data/input involving geology, and geology is unprecedentedly and unbelievably flawed at page one, ie, sand.

 

Lindell Bohannon
Lindell Bohannon

In the Universal scheme of things, humans are only important to themselves, so we must study ourselves.  I agree that our time on this planet is not going to be without end.  We are soiling our nest.

tiffany patel
tiffany patel

I myself am very confused about the dating of 400,000 years? I know the genetic and morphological divergence within the human species alone is massive, take a pygmy and take a 7 foot Russian man, if we were to look at part of their bones we might be convinced that they are parts of  different species however they are not. I fear archeology and anthropology may be succumbing towards it's archaic backgrounds, which I suppose is natural as most of our theories are structured into seeing differences rather then homogeneity... I wish they would ever present an argument that identified the possibilities of evolutionary adaptation of singular species?  any links to papers or articles would be appreciated.

Steve Johnston
Steve Johnston

400,000 years ago? Completely speculative. Why don't you talk about all the GIANT nephilim skeletons that are being covered up by the Smithsonian institute because they don't fit in with the "theory" of evolution.

Miguel Belloso Bueno
Miguel Belloso Bueno

la sima de los huesos es una fortuna que se conserven para toda la humanidad

Maria OConnor
Maria OConnor

I think that both the physical characteristics & genetics should be considered. I believe the Sima de los Huesos individuals, gave origin to both Neanderthal and Denisovans. I also think that Neanderthal are not extinct, they live in our genes.  When Spaniards discovered the southern part of South America, they mated with the natives. After, one or two centuries, other Europeans also ventured into Southern South America and married the mixture of Spanish and Indigenous.  In later centuries, Europeans kept emigrating to South America, so some people in Southern South America, have one grandparent with a small percentage of indigenous genes, and the other grandparents are of different European ancestry. Maybe, that is what happened in ancient times in Europe. A homo sapiens female mated with a Neanderthal male, and the females hybrid, mated with both Homo Sapiens & Neanderthal, but homo sapiens kept coming from the South and become more numerous; like the Europeans kept emigrating to Southern South America.

Maria OConnor
Maria OConnor

I think that both morphological or physical characteristics and genetics should be considered. To me the Sima de los Huesos individuals, gave origin to both Neanderthal and Denisovans. I also think that Neanderthal are not extinct, they live in our genes.  When Spaniards discovered the southern part of South America, some of them mixed with the natives. After, one or two centuries, other Europeans also ventured into Southern South America and married the mixture of Spanish and Indigenous.  Europeans kept emigrating to South America, so some people in Southern South America, have one grandparent with a small percentage of indigenous genes, and the other grandparents are of different European ancestry. Maybe, that is what happened in ancient times in Europe. A homo sapiens female mated with a Neanderthal male, and the females hybrid, mated with both Homo Sapiens & Neanderthal, but homo sapiens kept coming from the South and become more numerous; like the Europeans kept emigrating to Southern South America.

Ali B.
Ali B.

every time we find a new homo skeleton or bone, scientist say that a new specie or kind of human being, so what about a unique specie with multiple shapes, changing according to time and space

Toy Bodbijl
Toy Bodbijl

Dear Debra,  Read the vast literature (SCIENTIFIC, NOT SCIENCE FICTION) on human evolution in Africa.

Debra K. Berryere
Debra K. Berryere

Isn't it time to give up the fiction that humans all came from Africa. That we originated from one spot. It's like saying we were born from a single pair or Adam & Eve. 

Doesn't it make sense that our diversity comes from many branches of evolution arising from many places all over the globe instead? Who says evolution has to proceed at the same speed in all species. 

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

If you really want to know what they looked like, I know a few people that could pass for a Neanderthal VERY EASILY, And that is a disservice to the REAL Neanderthals. Ha, Ha !!!

dale p
dale p

What is known about how the Neandathals came into existence in the first place? On an early migration from Africa, did the Neandathals interbreed with some other even older human? Or did they very quickly evolve into the Neandathal form independently?

Vonne Pitcher
Vonne Pitcher

Interesting!  It appears that as the facial shapes were so different between Neanderthals and homo sapiens at even this late stage maybe they had completely different ancestors from homo heidelbergensis.  There are still missing links to be found I feel.

Xu Qi
Xu Qi

This article is cool!

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

Every species of human that's ever lived has gone extinct. For the first time in human history only one species of human survives - Homo sapiens sapiens ('Knowing Man' !). However, we are well on the way to eradicating ourselves too by unchecked population growth and the unlimited destruction of every environment that supports us. 

Humans will be extinct within the next million years. Only then will the planet and the diversity of life recover to where it was before Man walked out of Africa.

Ron Bockman
Ron Bockman

if they need to measure Neanderthal heads, there are lots of them living here in Philadelphia

Arthur Cammers
Arthur Cammers

@Judith MacInnis Why they disappeared???? When a species survives for a long time the thing to wonder is why? 99.99% of species across all phyla disappear. Why the procertops, the crocodilia, and the trilobites were so persistent is the thing to wonder. The dynamism is all species of homo means that each was at the brink of disappearing many times in their history on the planet. Sapiens likely due to increased societal order. Hobbes' leviathan was just a baby than, but baby leviathans are still leviathans. :-) 

Geoff Smith
Geoff Smith

@Judith MacInnis They were bred into human populations. They didn't go extinct, they give people of european descent different colored hair and eyes.

'Rob Veltman
'Rob Veltman

@Christopher Ball ok i know where you are going with this..  Let me finish your argument you seem to want to make but wisely leave out.   ..... "Therefor God".....  creationism 101

'Rob Veltman
'Rob Veltman

@tiffany patel that is not how it works.  not only size and length are getting into the account, also relative proportions of features, differential localization. Genetic data, and distribution through time besides geography.  Accumulated difference clustering of criteria that are  significantly different is what underlies claims about if someone os regarded the same species or not

Alan Webb
Alan Webb

@Steve Johnston.-   GIANT nephilim skeletons is a montage with photographic retouching for children. And If this is not, tell me why all these pictures don't appear in the most prestigious newspapers in the world ?

Laurel Winter
Laurel Winter

@Steve Johnston


If they're being covered up, that's probably why NatGeo isn't writing about them. That, or they don't exist. Difficult to say with certainty.

Randy Elble
Randy Elble

@Andrew Booth A million?!  We'll be lucky to survive 200 at the current rate of resource depletion, and that rate is increasing.

Paul Scutts
Paul Scutts

@Ron Bockman Could have been a bunch of monkeys and humans crowded together, like a pre-hiostoric Congress.

Arthur Cammers
Arthur Cammers

@Geoff Smith Neanderthal giving humans whiteness is not established, and does not make sense. This notion is entirely simplistic. Humans do not need neanderthal to go from light to dark and back again. It happens in about 80 generations living under the sun. It is due to the fact that both folic acid and vitamin D are necessary for life processes. Folic acid is destroyed by UV light and vitamin D is synthesized by UV light. Increased melanin to protect folic acid from the sun. Decreased melanin to synthesize vitamin. 

Kevin Yonan
Kevin Yonan

@Geoff Smith No they did not, the alleles associated hair and eyes in modern humans evolved independently through Convergent Evolution.

Paul Scutts
Paul Scutts

@Randy Elble @Andrew Booth I'd reckon that both you guys would be a riot at parties.

Gwendolyn Mugliston
Gwendolyn Mugliston

@Paul Scutts Rany Elble and Andrew Booth are on target with their prognostications for the human species.  I would suggest you read about the consequences of mass migrations due to lack of rainfall and/or rising seas, mass starvations and the rapid spread of parasitic diseases, huge dead zones in the oceans and Gulf of Mexico, the plastic Pacific gyre, the melting Greenland and Arctic ice  now occurring...and Monsanto continues. 



We humans are vermin on the face of a very beautiful planet.  I suggest you go to India and see what unabated reproduction looks like.  Or go to any world city with  thriving slums and people living on garbage heaps. We are a savage species. Senseless. 



It is interesting to me that we don't even really like each other for if we did we would not be acting in the self serving ways we do.



Pride, fear, greed, lust and envy drive advertising and those very lack of virtues are  what drives every human to acquire too much of anything and not to share it. 


Share

Feed the World

  • How to Feed Our Growing Planet

    How to Feed Our Growing Planet

    National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.

See blogs, stories, photos, and news »

Latest From Nat Geo

See more photos »

Shop Our Space Collection

  • Be the First to Own <i>Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey</i>

    Be the First to Own Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

    The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.

Shop Now »