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Ancient Skulls Provide Insight Into Neanderthal Ancestry

Researchers studying evolutionary patterns in early Neanderthals have quelled controversy and provided more evidence for the accretion model.
Posted at 10:27 AM, Jun 20, 2014

Researchers studying the evolutionary patterns in Neandertals say they have discovered new insights into the ancient humans. (Via Flickr / Paolo C.)

They analyzed 17 skulls from the Middle Pleistocene time period, all of which were found in a Spanish cave known as Sima de los Huesos. (Via Google

The report, published in the journal Science, explains how the evolution of Neandertals — also known as Neanderthals — is a bit more complicated than we previously thought. 

"Facial modification was the first step in the evolution of the Neandertal lineage, pointing to a mosaic pattern of evolution, with different anatomical and functional modules evolving at different rates." (Via Science)

The study leads researchers to believe these primitive humans developed their facial features before developing large brains — not all at once. (Via Flickr / JacobEnos)

Which helps explain away controversy previously surrounding the Sima de los Huesos fossils.

International Business Times says researchers used to believe the Sima fossils were around 530,000 years old but were unsure because scientific evidence, such as carbon dating, didn't match up with the shape and development of the skulls. Using six different techniques to date the fossils, the team discovered "they all converged on 430,000 years ago."

The researchers say this discovery helps to confirm something called the accretion model.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the model holds that "late Pleistocene hominids evolved in partial or complete genetic isolation from the rest of humanity."

​In simpler terms, the researchers have compared the model to HBO's "Game of Thrones." While large tribes competed with each other for survival, each tribe's gene pool was still largely isolated and evolved to survive based on their environment. (Via Christian Science Monitor)

One more comparison to the popular series: The scientists noted environmental changes like thick patches of ice and glaciers may have led to the different periods of diversification. In other words, "winter was coming ... and [it] came many times."