Monday, 23 June 2014 | MYT 5:30 PM

'Pit of Bones' skulls suggest human evolution was like 'Game Of Thrones'

In a cave called ‘Pit of the Bones’ in Spain’s Atapuerca mountains, 17 primitive Neanderthal skulls have been found that suggest early humans underwent a Game of Thrones-like evolution, full of turbulence and conflict.

Notwithstanding the bleakness of its name, Sima de los Huesos (translates as 'Pit of the Bones') has been a boon for scientists have digging in its depths for the past four decades. And what they've uncovered there in the darkness could alter the way we think about how human evolution took shape over the past million years. 

The cave’s prize find is an astonishing collection of 17 fossil skulls dating from about 430,000 years ago that belonged to an extinct human species closely related to the Neanderthals — scientifically known as Homo neanderthalensis. 

Reassembled from jumbled fragments found in a small chamber deep within the cave, the skulls represent the oldest known fossils to show clear Neanderthal features, without being actual Neanderthals.

Looking for clues: Professor Juan Luis Arsuaga examines an artefact during an excavation inside 'Sima de los Huesos' Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain. — Reuters

“Never before had such a tremendous collection of hominin (extinct human) 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 on June 19.

The researchers did not assign the 17 skulls to any specific species, noting genetic differences from Neanderthals as evidenced by DNA recovered from one of the Sima fossils. “Phylogenetically, they are early members of the Neanderthal lineage. The specific (species) name is still an open question. I am not in favour of calling them just ‘Neanderthals’,” Arsuaga said.

The Sima individuals lived during the Middle Pleistocene, a span of about half a million years for which scientists are seeking a better understanding of human evolution. Scientists also said the skulls were not representative of another human 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 — a “mosaic pattern” of evolution, they said.

Skulls numbered 17 (above) and 15 (below), which were retrieved from the the cave. These skulls represent the oldest known 

Evolution a la Game of Thrones 

The skulls showed that the earliest changes in the Neanderthal lineage occurred in the teeth, jaw and face, with those characteristics related to a specialisation in chewing, perhaps related to meat-eating. The skulls retained some primitive traits like a smaller brain case. The Neanderthal trait of an elongated and rounded brain case appeared later.

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 the fantasy HBO TV series Game of Thrones.

The Neanderthals are the closest extinct relative to our species, Homo sapiens. Their remains have been found in Europe and Asia, where they are thought to have prospered during the last Ice Age, roughly between 250,000 and 40,000 years ago. They disappeared sometime after early modern humans first trekked into Europe from Africa.

It’s not known whether the Neanderthals developed the sophisticated language skills of modern humans, but they were physically bigger and stronger and had larger braincases. They are also known to have lived in complex social groups, built dwellings made from mammoth bones and skins, made stone and quartz tools, and practise the burial of their dead.

Several hypotheses exist to explain why the Neanderthals vanished but none are conclusive. Recent genetic evidence has shown there was interbreeding between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, lending weight to the belief that their species merely merged with ours — but even this is disputed. 

Cave of skulls

The researchers used six sophisticated techniques to establish the age of the Sima fossils, which previously had been estimated as being roughly 530,000 to 600,000 years old, dates that had complicated the question as to the species involved.

“As a result of this study we are able to answer two of the most important questions that surround the Sima de los Huesos fossil assemblage: Who were these people? And when were they living on the landscape?” said another of the researchers, geochronologist Lee Arnold of the University of Adelaide in Australia.

“Both these findings are critical to better understanding the complex patterns of human evolution across Europe during the Middle Pleistocene, not least because the site contains more than 80% of the world’s known Middle Pleistocene fossil record for the genus Homo,” Arnold added.

The cave — a UNESCO World Heritage site where excavations have been carried over the past decades — have yielded more than just the 17 skulls. Scientists have also pieced together skeletons of at least 28 individuals, Arsuaga said. They were mostly of young adults and teenagers, with a few older adults and children. — Reuters

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle , Features , Science , Archaeology , Biology , Human , Evolution , Neanderthals , Game Of Thrones , Sima de los Hueso , Homo sapiens , Homo neanderthale


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