Bones provide astonishing insight into hominid evolution

2014-06-23 00:00

PALEO-ANTHROPOLOGIST Professor Lee Berger said the astonishing collection of hominid bones found in a cave in Spain is of inestimable value to better understand human evolution.

The dig in Spain unearthed 17 fossil skulls of more than 28 individuals from an extinct human species that were closely related to the Neanderthals.

Berger leads the Rising Star expedition in the Cradle of Humankind.

He said any terrain where a large number of individuals were discovered is of inestimable value to anthropology because it allows comparison of a small population. He said such finds were extremely rare and could also teach humans a lot about our evolution.

Berger said he hoped the relatively young Rising Star expedition, which started last year after a discovery of hominid bones in the Rising Star cave, west of Johannesburg, will eventually be able to compare in scale to the Sima de los Huesos terrain in the Atapuerca mountains in Spain.

Reuters reports that scientists digging at Sima de los Huesos announced on Thursday that a collection of 17 fossil skulls of an extinct human species had been unearthed. The skulls were reassembled from jumbled fragments from a small chamber deep within the cave and are the oldest known fossils to show clear Neanderthal features, although the scientists stopped short of calling them actual Neanderthals.

“Never before had such a tremendous collection of hominid skulls been discovered at a single site. For the first time in history, we can study a fossil population, not isolated fossils,” said paleontologist Juan Luis Arsuaga of the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, who led the study published in the journal Science.

The site did not yield just skulls. The scientists have pieced together skeletons of at least 28 individuals, Arsuaga said, mostly young adults and teenagers, but with a few older adults and children.

Researchers have been conducting excavations at the location — designated a Unesco world heritage site — over the past four decades and previously described some of the skulls and other remains. There has been a spirited debate about the age of the fossils and the precise species they represent.

The researchers did not assign them to any specific species, noting genetic differences from Neanderthals based on DNA recovered from one of the Sima fossils. They also said the skulls were not representative of another species that lived at the time, Homo heidelbergensis, because of jawbone differences.

The scientists found Neanderthal-like characteristics in the skulls, as well as features associated with more primitive humans. This backs the idea that Neanderthals developed their various defining characteristics separately and at different times.

Arsuaga said the fossils suggest that human evolution in Europe at the time was not a slow, orderly process encompassing uniform changes across the continent’s various peoples, but rather something more chaotic akin to the struggles between clans in Game of Thrones.

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