Tuesday, June 24, 2014

New Investigations at the Sima de los Huesos Cave in Atapuerca: Kind of Neandertal and Kind of Not

Science Daily is reporting on a new paper in Science, about the conclusions drawn from the largest single cache of human remains in one place in Europe, the Sima de los Huesos cave, near Atapuerca, in Spain.  They write:
“With the skulls we found," co-author Ignacio MartĂ­nez, Professor of Paleontology at the University of Alcalá, added, "it was possible to characterize the cranial morphology of a human population of the European Middle Pleistocene for the first time.”

About 400 to 500 thousand years ago, in the heart of the Pleistocene, archaic humans split off from other groups of that period living in Africa and East Asia, ultimately settling in Eurasia, where they evolved characteristics that would come to define the Neandertal lineage. Several hundred thousand years after that, modern humans -- who had evolved in Africa -- settled in Eurasia, too. They interbred with Neandertals, but even then showed signs of reproductive incompatibility. Because of this, modern humans eventually replaced Neandertals.
This is the hybrid depression that I mentioned a few posts back.  This model fits the genetics information that was summarized by Dennis Venema in his BioLogos post on palaeogenomics from a few weeks ago.  It still also fits with the idea that modern humans swamped a Neandertal genome that was already subject to selective disadvantage.  Consequently, by around 27-29 ky BP, the last populations of Neandertals are, perhaps represented by Zafarraya, a late surviving Neandertal from the very southern coast of Spain. The idea that this Neandertal represents a refugium has been kicked around for decades. Critically, the earliest moderns in Central Europe predate this “last neandertal” by between five and nine thousand years and the evidence from Lagar Velho, in Portugal, indicates that hybridization was occurring as late as this. 

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