Neanderthals May Be Older Than Previously Thought

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A collection of Hominin teeth used to determine the rate of tooth evolution among human ancestors. (Aida Gomez-Robles / Ana Muela / Jose Maria Bermudez de Castro)

The Teeth of Early Neanderthals May Indicate the Species’ Lineage Is Older Than Thought

by Brian Handwerk Smithsonian.com

In a cave called the ‘pit of bones,’ up in the Atapuerca Mountains of Spain, a collection of 430,000-year-old teeth are curiously smaller than might be expected for the skulls they were found with. The anomaly has one scientist suggesting that the lineages of modern humans and Neanderthals split some 800,000 years ago, tens of thousands of years earlier than genetic studies have estimated.

Aida Gómez-Robles, an anthropologist at University College London, studies how ancient hominin species’ teeth evolved over the ages. She believes that because the ancient teeth look too modern for their era, they must have evolved unusually quickly or, as she finds more likely, had more time to evolve than has been generally believed. The new research was published today in Science Advances.

As various hominin species evolved, their teeth changed in notable ways, generally becoming smaller over time. Studying the teeth of various early human ancestors is one of the most common ways of differentiating between species and even identifying new ones. Gómez-Robles’ previous research suggests that teeth tend to evolve at a relatively standard rate across hominin history. If that’s true, the molars and premolars unearthed from the Spanish cave are smaller than would be expected given their age.

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