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Neandertal Lineage Began in a Game of Thrones World

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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 skull

Skull from the Sima de los Huesos site in Spain shows early Neandertal features. Image: © Javier Trueba / Madrid Scientific Films

In a small chamber deep in the Atapuerca mountains in northern Spain lies one of the most extraordinary paleontological discoveries of all time: a massive assemblage of fossils belonging to an extinct member of the human family. The site is known as the Sima de los Huesos, the “pit of bones.” And in it scientists have found clues to the origin of Neandertals.

Researchers have been excavating the site for years, recovering more than 6,500 bones from at least 28 individuals to date. The find offers a rare chance to study a prehistoric population, as opposed to an individual. Now a new analysis of 17 skulls from the site is yielding fresh insights. In a paper published today in Science, Juan Luis Arsuaga of the Centro Mixto UCM-ISII de Evolución y Comportamiento Humanos in Madrid and his colleagues report that the fossils show that Neandertals have deep evolutionary roots, and that their distinctive traits evolved piecemeal rather than as a package deal.

The Sima skulls date to around 430,000 years ago, during the Middle Pleistocene—a poorly understood period of human evolution. And they exhibit some key Neandertal characteristics, including a projecting midface, as well as a number of features in the teeth and jaws. They are the oldest fossils to show such affinities to our Neandertal cousins. But they lack the classic Neandertal “chignon” (a mound of bone at the rear of the skull) and other aspects of the Neandertal braincase. All told this mix of Neandertal and non-Neandertal traits indicates to the team that the Sima fossils represent an early member of the Neandertal clade—not Homo neanderthalensis, but a closely related species or subspecies.

Arsuaga and his colleagues observe that the Neandertal traits evident in the Sima skulls all relate to chewing, suggesting that “the origin of the Neandertal clade coincides with a masticatory specialization.” But exactly what the specialization was is not yet clear, though researchers have previously argued that the Neandertals used their teeth as a grasping tool while preparing animal hides or processing food. For example, they might have gripped one end of a hide with one hand and the other end with their teeth, leaving one hand free to scrape the fur from the skin.

Only later in the evolution of the Neandertal lineage did brain size expand, attaining a volume close to that of anatomically modern H. sapiens. Yet though these increases in size occurred in parallel in the Neandertal and H. sapiens lineages, they did not produce identical brains in the two groups. In a commentary accompanying the Science report, paleoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig notes that “there is clear evidence that the growth pattern of modern human brains deviates from that of Neandertals. In modern humans, parietal areas and cerebellum expand in early infancy, at a crucial stage for the establishment of cognitive skills.”

At a press teleconference, Arsuaga likened Middle Pleistocene Europe to a Game of Thrones world in which different populations across the continent variously competed and co-mingled as they struggled to survive ice age climate swings. “Winter was coming,” he said. “Winter came many times.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kate Wong About the Author: Kate Wong is an editor and writer at Scientific American covering paleontology, archaeology and life sciences. Follow on Twitter @katewong.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. evelyn haskins 12:10 am 06/21/2014

    It would be nce to know what on earth you mean by a “game of thrones”. Speaking for those of us who do not follow Television game shows.

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  2. 2. Steven 12:39 am 06/21/2014

    It would be important to know if the early Neanderthals used fire. If they were not able to cook their food, but had to eat it raw, it would probably require much more chewing.
    I have seen reports that after reviewing about 140 sites in Europe there were indications Neanderthals controlled fire, beginning sometime between three hundred and four hundred thousand years ago.
    Possibly extensive chewing of raw food required strong jaw musculature.
    Possibly

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  3. 3. SteveO 5:52 pm 06/23/2014

    Evelyn, it is a fantasy series of books, and now a series on a cable channel (I don’t recall which one.)

    The parallel is that in the series, numerous families vie for power, all succeeding and failing, with many individuals getting killed, all under the threat of “winter is coming” which apparently is a periodic Ice Age.

    Interestingly, if the Neanderthals are the cast of the Game of Thrones, homo sapiens sapiens might be cast as the creatures that kill them all when winter truly comes…

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  4. 4. lucaspa 1:38 pm 06/24/2014

    Evelyn: Most of the fossils we have that are intermediate between H. ergastor and neandertal date from 250,000 years ago, or 200,000 years later than these. The idea seems to be that there are several (at least a dozen) populations of H. ergastor in southern Europe about 500,000 years ago. Some in Spain (where these fossils are found), some in Greece, Italy, southern France, etc. They don’t interbreed much due to mountains, rivers, and the general problem of travel by foot. They are all facing a changing climate and, thus, evolving. So, some groups adapt faster than others, and there is some gene flow between groups. There is also competition when ranges overlap. It is this series of interactions — sometimes cooperative (interbreeding) and sometimes competitive — that (vaguely) resembles the political struggles between families in George RR Martin’s series of books about a (roughly) medieval world that is Game of Thrones (also a series on HBO). Anyway, Game of Thrones provides an analogy in pop culture.

    Homo sapiens evolves from H. ergastor in Africa from 400,000 to 100,000 years ago. The oldest intermediate I know about is Bouri at 400Kya. About 60,000 years ago tribes of H. sapiens starts to migrate into Europe. By then the descendents of the people of Sima have evolved to neandertals. By 30,000 years ago neandertals are extinct.

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  5. 5. endtaxes 5:59 pm 07/4/2014

    27 individuals would only have 5562 bones. Also if modern man has been here for about 200,000 years as proposed, where did all the people go? When I run the numbers on a spreadsheet, I run into a big (huge) problem. If I set up a spreadsheet and I start with just 1 man and 1 woman and figure that each generation is 100 years and each pair of humans had 4 offspring (which would probably be very conservative with no birth control in 100 years and men being as horny as they are) in just 3300 years there would be 7 billion people on earth. If I say that a generation is 200 years I end up with 7 billion in 6600 years. If man had been here for 50,000 years and EACH GENERATIONS WAS 1000 YEARS (extremely conservative) there should be approximately 1,125,899,906,842,620 or 1.125 quintillion people on earth today .Of course this is not taking into account the major death events such as the plague. Either way the population of the earth does not fit in the 100′s of thousand or millions of years. I am neither a young earth or old earth proponent (still trying to decide). The best fit, after having run many spreadsheets and deducted as many major death events I could find, is that after the flood mentioned in the bible (projected at 4400 years ago), there were eight people. Noah and his wife and his 3 sons and their wives. Not only does this account for the lower population, but, it also accounts for the 3 lineages coming from mitochondrial Eve. Run the numbers for yourself.

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  6. 6. endtaxes 6:07 pm 07/4/2014

    If modern man has been here for about 200,000 years as proposed, where did all the people go? When I run the numbers on a spreadsheet, I run into a big (huge) problem. If I set up a spreadsheet and I start with just 1 man and 1 woman and figure that each generation is 100 years and each pair of humans had 4 offspring (which would probably be very conservative with no birth control in 100 years and men being as horny as they are) in just 3300 years there would be 7 billion people on earth. If I say that a generation is 200 years I end up with 7 billion in 6600 years. If man had been here for 50,000 years and EACH GENERATIONS WAS 1000 YEARS (extremely conservative) there should be approximately 1,125,899,906,842,620 or 1.125 quintillion people on earth today .Of course this is not taking into account the major death events such as the plague. Either way the population of the earth does not fit in the 100′s of thousand or millions of years. I am neither a young earth or old earth proponent (still trying to decide). The best fit, after having run many spreadsheets and deducted as many major death events I could find, is that after the flood mentioned in the bible (projected at 4400 years ago), there were eight people. Noah and his wife and his 3 sons and their wives. Not only does this account for the lower population, but, it also accounts for the 3 lineages coming from mitochondrial Eve. Run the numbers for yourself.

    Link to this
  7. 7. hkraznodar 12:36 pm 07/8/2014

    @endtaxes: The idea that the flood covered the whole world was introduced long after the original story was written down since the original term used actually meant valley rather than world. As exaggeration and over dramatization crept into the Bible to impress the gullible, it’s primary function as a guide to how to live life correctly was subsumed into a tool to dominate the general population and justify genocide.

    Your math is also bad because for most of human history the average lifespan was around 35 years so each generation should be about every 15 to 120 years because that would be when the children of the next generation would be born. Did you also account for the 80% mortality rate for all children born? Four out of every five children born did not survive to have children of their own. Many of the “great deaths” are not recorded because the people that would have done so were illiterate. Even when the deaths were recorded it was generally only in reference to local disasters.

    If you want to comment on science articles you may want to learn what the scientific method is and how it works.

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  8. 8. hkraznodar 12:38 pm 07/8/2014

    Correction* 15 to 120 years doesn’t make sense so let me amend that to what I really meant which is 15 to 20 years.

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