Reassessing Neanderthal teeth in Jersey

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Image of 12 teeth sorted into those belonging to an Individual A and an Individual B.
CREDIT: Compton et al., Journal of Human Evolution

Recent analysis of 12 teeth, first excavated at the Palaeolithic site of La Cotte de St Brelade in Jersey between 1910 and 1911, may provide new evidence of cross-breeding between Neanderthals and modern humans in this region.

The teeth were found behind a hearth in the cave, within the layers of Mousterian occupation. They are believed to date to near the end of this period c.40,000 years ago. After excavation, they were identified as Neanderthal and entered the collections of what is now Jersey Heritage. They were then largely forgotten until recently, when new insights into Neanderthal/Homo sapiens interactions highlighted their importance.

While it is fairly certain that between 55,000 and 48,000 years ago there were several gene-flow events between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens (see ‘Science Notes’, CA 369), there is mounting evidence suggesting another smaller event occurred before 40,000 years ago in Western Europe. Could these seemingly unassuming Neanderthal teeth offer clues to this interaction? A team led by researchers from the Natural History Museum sought to find out.

In assessing the teeth, the team found that one was not from a hominin, but the others came from at least two separate adults (ABOVE). They also found some intriguing anomalies. While the crown dimensions and root morphology of all the teeth are consistent with Neanderthals, in three of the teeth the shape of the cervix (which separates the crown from the root) had modern humanlike characteristics. There were also some distinctive traits missing from several of the teeth that would be expected if they were from Neanderthals. These mixed characteristics would have belonged to both of the probable individuals. The team believes that, taking the evidence altogether, these teeth represent a group with mixed ancestry, offering further support of modern human/Neanderthal interaction in Europe at this time.

The results were published in the Journal of Human Evolution: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhevol.2020.102939.


This news article appears in issue 373 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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