In 1957, anthropologists discovered some skeletal remains — a jawbone, specifically — in a rock shelter named Riparo di Mezzena, in Italy. The bones may be ancient, but a recent study claims that they belonged to an individual 30,000 years ago of unprecedented mixed heritage: Neanderthal and human.
If the theory proves to be correct, then this specimen would be the first known direct hybrid of Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthal) and Homo sapiens (us!), offering direct evidence for the controversial theory stating that the two species interbred.
Silvana Condemi, research director at the University of Ai-Marseille and co-author of the study, told Discovery News:
“From the morphology of the lower jaw, the face of the Mezzena individual would have looked somehow intermediate between classic Neanderthals, who had a rather receding lower jaw (no chin), and the modern humans, who present a projecting lower jaw with a strongly developed chin.”
DNA analysis and 3D imaging was used on the remains, and the results were found to be more similar to human than Neanderthal remains. Meanwhile, genetic analysis revealed mitochondrial DNA to be decidedly Neanderthal. From this, researchers concluded that a female Neanderthal had mated with a male Homo sapien, since this DNA would be passed from mother to child.
Past studies have shown that modern humans and Neanderthals co-existed in the same part of the world for thousands of years, and their cultures remained mostly distinct from one another. While we tend to think of humans as “civilized” and Neanderthals as brutish, simian cousins, the researchers’ work supports the theory of “a slow process of replacement of Neanderthals by the invading modern human populations, as well as additional evidence of the upholding of the Neanderthals’ cultural identity.”
The researchers also suggest that the interbreeding may not have been entirely consensual. Civilized doesn’t always mean civil, does it? Pure-blooded Neanderthals, and their culture, are believed to have died out 30,000 to 35,000 years ago — not so far from the estimated age of the newly-analyzed remains. With only old bones to guide us, it’s unlikely the issue will be put to rest anytime soon.
At the end of the day, we’re all hominids, right?
- We’re all genetic mistakes, but at least we have a backbone
- New human fossils may reveal a new species
- We owe our immune system to the Neanderthals