400,000 year-old half-skull points to ancestor of Neanderthals

400,000 year-old half-skull points to ancestor of Neanderthals

PanARMENIAN.Net - The discovery of a 400,000-year-old half skull in Portugal has offered tantalizing hints about a possible ancestor of the Neanderthals, researchers said Monday, March 13, according to AFP.

The fossil was unearthed from the Aroeira cave site, and marks the oldest human cranium fossil ever found in Portugal, said the report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a peer-reviewed US journal.

But there is plenty of mystery around the skull. Researchers don't know if it was from a male or female, how the person died, or even what form of early human it was.

"There is a lot of question about which species these fossils represent. I tend to think of them as ancestors of the Neanderthals," co-author Rolf Quam, an anthropologist at Binghamton University, State University of New York, told AFP.

"It is not a Neanderthal itself," he added. "It has some features that might be related to the later Neanderthals," including a lump of bone near the ear called the mastoid process.

Researchers say this bone may be related to regulating pressure in the ear, although its exact purpose is unclear.

What researchers can say with certainty is that the skull belonged to an adult, based on the formation of the bones. A couple of teeth found with it appear worn, as if belonging to an adult rather than a child.

They also know its age -- 400,000 years -- based on precision dating of the surrounding stalagmites and sediments.

The same cannot be said for other skulls of its kind found elsewhere in Europe. Some were uncovered years ago, before modern technology existed. In other cases, conditions at the cave site did not allow for precise dating of surrounding rock and sediment.

Researchers have sometimes had to guess at the ages of these skulls, ranging from 200,000 to more than 400,000 years, according to Quam.

The Portuguese skull shares some features with bones uncovered in northern Spain that are some 430,000 years old, and in southern France dating even further back, to around 450,000 years.

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