An ancient jawbone thought to have belonged to a Neanderthal may force a rethink of the history of modern humans in Europe.
A new analysis of the broken mandible reveals that it has nothing in common with other Neanderthal remains. It could rather belong to a A wise man – and, since it dates from between 45,000 and 66,000 years ago, it could be the oldest known piece of anatomy of our species on the European continent.
The bone itself was found in 1887 in the town of Banyoles in Spain, hence its nickname. Since then, scientists have studied it quite extensively, dating it to a Late Pleistocene period when the region that is now Europe was populated primarily by Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis).
This, and the archaic shape of the bone, led scientists to conclude that Banyoles actually belonged to a Neanderthal.
“The mandible has been studied throughout the last century and has long been considered Neanderthal due to its age and location, and the fact that it lacks one of the diagnostic features of A wise man: a chin”, explains the paleoanthropologist Brian Keeling of the university of Binghamton in the United States.
Keeling and his colleagues undertook an in-depth investigation of the bone using a process called three-dimensional geometric morphometric analysis. It is a non-invasive protocol that involves comprehensively examining the shape of a bone, mapping its features, and comparing them to other remains.
They took high-resolution 3D scans and used them not just to study the bone, but to reconstruct the missing pieces. Next, they compared Banyoles to the mandibles of Neanderthals and modern humans.
“Our results found something quite surprising,” says Keeling. “Banyoles shared no distinct Neanderthal traits and did not overlap with Neanderthals in general form.”
It seemed more consistent with the jaws of our own branch of the family tree, except for one detail: the missing chin.
Since the chin is considered a defining feature of A wise man compared to other archaic humans, this was a problem. Additionally, Banyoles also shared characteristics with ancient hominids that inhabited Europe hundreds of thousands of years ago.
The researchers compared the bone to that of a modern human from around 37,000 to 42,000 years ago whose remains were found in Romania. He is known to have Neanderthal features, but he also has a chin.
DNA analysis of this jawbone showed that the DNA included sequences from a single Neanderthal ancestor who lived four or six generations before – which likely explains its mixed characteristics.
Since Banyoles lacks Neanderthal features, the team concluded that its odd shape is unlikely to be due to the individual being a hybrid.
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Comparison with the previous A wise man bones from Africa have shown that these individuals had less pronounced chins than we have now.
So there are two possibilities. Either Banyoles was a A wise man of a previously unknown group that coexisted with Neanderthals in Late Pleistocene Europe. Or was it a hybrid between A wise man of this unknown group and an ancient human yet to be identified.
Only one thing is certain: that Banyoles was not a Neanderthal.
According to the researchers, there is a way to solve the mystery: try to extract DNA from the bone or one of the teeth and sequence it.
“If Banyoles is truly our species, this prehistoric human would represent the oldest A wise man never documented in Europe,” says Keeling.
The research was published in the Journal of Human Evolution.
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