Neandertals, Modern Humans May Have Interbred, Skull Study Suggests

January 16, 2007

Modern humans continued to evolve after they reached Europe 40,000 years ago and may have interbred with Neandertals, according to new research.

The findings are based on an analysis of the oldest modern human skull yet found in Europe.

Neandertals (often spelled Neanderthals) were heavy browed, big boned early humans that lived in Europe and parts of Asia for about 200,000 years.

Neandertals disappeared from the fossil record 28,000 years ago, about 12,000 years after modern humans began to spread across Europe. (Related: "Neandertals' Last Stand Was in Gibraltar, Study Suggests" [September 13, 2006].)

Scientists have long debated the relationship between modern humans and Neandertals.

This past fall a genetic study suggested that the two species split 400,000 years ago. But days later a bone study suggested that they mated much more recently than that.

The newly analyzed skull, reported online this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, adds to the heated discussion.

Modern and Archaic

The skull was discovered in a cave in southwestern Romania and is at least 29,000 years old. A jawbone found nearby with similar morphological traits is dated to 40,500 years ago. The researchers conclude both specimens are about 40,000 years old.

Comparisons to other skulls suggest the Romanian skull clearly belongs to a modern human, said paper co-author Erik Trinkaus, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

"But some characteristics are extremely unusual and rather archaic," he said.

For example, the forehead is "extremely long and flat" when compared to modern humans from western Europe and Africa, Trinkaus said. And the molars are the largest ever documented for modern humans.

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