Study of ancient skulls sheds light on crosses with Neanderthals

A new study of ancient skulls reveals that Neanderthal human hybridization occurred earlier than previously believed and mostly in the Near East

Modern humans have traces of Neanderthal DNA in their genome. There is already a lot of evidence that we are the result of hybridization. Now, a study who evaluated the facial structure of prehistoric skulls, places that intersect mainly in the Near East, the region that stretches from North Africa to Iraq.

The map shows the main areas of hybridization between Neanderthals and Sapiens.

The map shows the main areas of hybridization between Neanderthals and Sapiens. Source: North Carolina State University

“Ancient DNA caused a revolution in the way we think about human evolution,” he says. Steven Churchill, co-author of the study and professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University. “We often think of evolution as the branches of a tree, and researchers have spent a lot of time trying to trace the path that led us, the Homo sapiens . But now we’re starting to understand that it’s not a tree: – it’s more like a series of streams that converge and diverge at various points.

About Neanderthals and Sapiens:

“Neanderthals interbred with the ancestors of what are now modern humans”

“The picture is really complicated,” says Churchill. “We know that there was miscegenation. Modern Asian populations appear to have more Neanderthal DNA than modern European populations, which is strange because Neanderthals lived in what is now Europe. This suggests that Neanderthals interbred with the ancestors of what are now modern humans.”

By assessing facial morphology, it is possible to track how populations have moved and interacted over time. And the evidence shows that the Near East was an important crossroads, both geographically and in the context of human evolution.

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For this study, the researchers collected data on the craniofacial morphology of 13 Neanderthals, 233 Homo sapiens prehistoric and 83 modern humans.

Neanderthals had big faces

“Neanderthals had big faces,” explains Churchill. “But size alone does not establish any genetic link between a human population and Neanderthal populations. Our work involved a more robust analysis of facial structures.”

The researchers also took into account environmental variables associated with changes in human facial features, to determine the likelihood that the connections they made between Neanderthal and human populations were the result of interbreeding rather than other factors.

“Neanderthals were just bigger than humans. Over time, the size of human faces dwindled, generations after they interbred with Neanderthals. But the actual shape of some facial features retained evidence of interbreeding.

“This was an exploratory study,” says Churchill. “And honestly, I wasn’t sure if this approach would really work: we have a relatively small sample size and we didn’t have as much data on facial structures as we would have liked. But ultimately, the results that are really compelling.

“We would like to incorporate measurements of more human populations into the study, such as the Natufians, who lived more than 11,000 years ago in the Mediterranean, in what is now Israel, Jordan and Syria,” Churchill added.

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