A fossil tooth study published today in the journal PLOS ONE analyzes some of the oldest human remains ever found on the Italian Peninsula. The teeth, which are some 450,000 years old, have some telltale features of the Neanderthal lineage of ancient humans. Dating back to the Middle Pleistocene, the fossils help to fill in gaps in an intriguingly complex part of the hominid family tree.Conventional wisdom is that Neandertals emerged around 200 thousand years ago, in Europe. The Atapuerca Sima de Los Huesos remains, which show pre-Neandertal characteristics, are about the same age as the Italian remains. It has been suggested that Homo heidelbergensis is the common ancestor to both Neandertals and modern humans but this is far from clear. The genetics suggests that Neandertals and modern humans split around 600 thousand years ago but interacted as recently as 60 to 70 thousand years ago and interbred.Modern Europeans have between 3 and 6% Neandertal genes.
The species Homo neanderthalensis shares an unknown common ancestor with our own species, Homo sapiens, but it’s unclear exactly when the lineages diverged. Homo sapiens evolved perhaps 300,000 years ago, according to the fossil record, while Neanderthals’ evolutionary timeline has proven even trickier to pin down. Some genetic studies suggest that their lineage split from our own as long as 650,000 years ago, but the oldest definitive fossil evidence for Neanderthals extends back only about 400,000 years.
This pushes back the origins of Neandertals and further muddies the picture of when and where these groups were and how they interacted. More puzzle pieces.