How To Become A Neanderthal: Chew Before Thinking

By comparing "Skull 17" from the Sima de los Huesos site with many others found in the same cave, researchers were able to discern the common facial features of the era.

By comparing "Skull 17" from the Sima de los Huesos site with many others found in the same cave, researchers were able to discern the common facial features of the era. Javier Trueba /Madrid Scientific Films hide caption

itoggle caption Javier Trueba /Madrid Scientific Films

Scientists have long puzzled over the origin and evolution of our closest relative, the Neanderthal. Now, researchers say Neanderthals seem to have developed their distinctive jaws and other facial features first, before they evolved to have big brains.

That's according to an analysis of 17 skulls, all taken from one excavation site in a mountain cave in Atapuerca, Spain, known as the Sima de los Huesos — the "pit of bones."

This shaft inside the cave yielded a huge number of bones, the biggest collection of ancient human fossils ever recovered from a single site. Since 1984, scientists have been painstakingly removing thousands of bone fragments and assembling them.

These skulls show Neanderthal features in the face and teeth, but have more primitive-looking braincases, according to a report in the journal Science from a research team led by Juan Luis Arsuaga of Madrid's Complutense University. The work shows that the start of the evolution of the Neanderthals began at least 430,000 years ago.

"If we understand how Neanderthals evolved and what has been going on, exactly, in the course of Neanderthal evolution, then we could say what is special with us, what is different," says Jean-Jacques Hublin, who studies human evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

This cave in Spain — the Sima de los Huesos site — has yielded the biggest collection of ancient human fossils ever recovered from a single site. i i

This cave in Spain — the Sima de los Huesos site — has yielded the biggest collection of ancient human fossils ever recovered from a single site. Javier Trueba/Madrid Scientific Films hide caption

itoggle caption Javier Trueba/Madrid Scientific Films
This cave in Spain — the Sima de los Huesos site — has yielded the biggest collection of ancient human fossils ever recovered from a single site.

This cave in Spain — the Sima de los Huesos site — has yielded the biggest collection of ancient human fossils ever recovered from a single site.

Javier Trueba/Madrid Scientific Films

While the Neanderthals were emerging, the ancestors of modern humans were evolving in Africa. Then, around 50,000 years ago, some of those modern humans ventured into Europe, where they apparently outcompeted their more-lumbering cousins, who went extinct.

Both Neanderthals and modern humans developed big brains, but they took different paths, says Hublin.

"By studying the divergence between Neanderthals and modern humans, we can understand what happened in our recent evolution," he says, "and maybe why we expanded in such a dramatic way all over the planet."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.