For more than a century, it has been believed that a fossilized human jaw found in 1887 in the town of Banyoles, in the province of Gerona (Girona) in Catalonia, Spain, belonged to a Neanderthal. A recent investigation refutes this and reveals a great mystery surrounding the nature of this individual.
The Banyoles fossil probably dates to between 45,000 and 65,000 years ago, a time when Europe was occupied by Neanderthals. Because of this, most researchers have assumed that the fossilized jaw belonged to a Neanderthal.
The jaw has been studied throughout the last century and has been considered Neanderthal due to its age and location, and the fact that it lacks one of the typical features of Homo sapiens: the chin.
The new study, conducted by the international team of Brian Keeling of Binghamton University (State University of New York) in the United States, relied on advanced techniques, including scanning the fossil using computed tomography and then virtually reconstructing missing parts of the fossil. fossil, and then generate a 3D model to be analyzed by computer.
The authors of the study analyzed the differences that the features of the Banyoles jaw present with respect to the typical jaw features of our species, Homo sapiens, and those of the Neanderthal jaw, our closest evolutionary cousins.
Keeling and his colleagues used a technique known as “three-dimensional geometric morphometry” that analyzes the geometric properties of bone shape. This makes it possible to directly compare the general shape of the fossilized jaw from Banyoles with that of the Neanderthal jaw and with that of the Homo sapiens jaw.
The results of the analyzes revealed something quite surprising: the fossilized jaw from Banyoles does not possess distinctive Neanderthal features and does not even match its general shape with that of Neanderthals.
Although the fossilized Banyoles jaw seemed to fit better with that of Homo sapiens in both its individual features and overall shape, many of these features are also possessed by the jaws of earlier human species,
In addition, the fossilized jaw from Banyoles lacks a chin, one of the most characteristic features of Homo sapiens jaws.
Therefore, determining the nature of that strange human is not as easy as cataloging it within Homo sapiens or within Neanderthal.
For all these reasons, reaching a scientific consensus on which species the fossilized mandible from Banyoles represents is quite a challenge.
Comparison between the Banyoles mandible (center), with one from Homo sapiens (left) and one from Neanderthal (right). (Photo: Brian Keeling. CC BY-NC-ND)
The study authors took into account that some of the earliest Homo sapiens fossils from Africa, predating the Banyoles human by more than 100,000 years, do show less pronounced chins than modern-day humans.
And from that, these scientists have put forward two hypotheses about what the Banyoles mandible may represent. One possibility is that it is a member of a hitherto unknown population of Homo sapiens that coexisted with Neanderthals. The other possibility is that it is a hybrid between a member of this group of Homo sapiens and an unidentified non-Neanderthal human species. However, the only human fossils found in Europe that date from the time in which the individual of whom the Banyoles jawbone was preserved lived are Neanderthals, which makes the latter hypothesis less likely.
“If the Banyoles subject is indeed a member of our species, this prehistoric human would be the oldest documented Homo sapiens in Europe,” Keeling says.
Whatever species this jaw belongs to, it is clear that the Banyoles human is not a Neanderthal.
The study is entitled “Reassessment of the human mandible from Banyoles (Girona, Spain)”. And it has been published in the academic journal Journal of Human Evolution. (Fountain: NCYT by Amazings)