Elena Santos

New Portuguese skull may be an early relative of Neandertals

Half a million years ago, several different members of our genus, Homo, had spread throughout Europe and Asia, where some would eventually evolve into Neandertals. But which ones has been the subject of intense debate. A newly discovered partial skull is offering another clue to help solve the mystery of the ancestry of Neandertals. Found in 2014 in the Gruta da Aroeira cave in central Portugal with ancient stone hand axes, the skull (3D reconstruction pictured) is firmly dated to 400,000 years old and an archaic member of our genus, according to a study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The skull shows a new mix of features not seen before in fossil humans—it has traits that link it to Neandertals, such as a fused brow ridge, as well as some primitive traits that resemble other extinct fossils in Europe. This new combination of features on a well-dated skull may help researchers sort out how different fossils in Europe are related to each other—and which ones eventually evolved into Neandertals.