Humans and Neanderthals coexisted on Earth for a few hundred thousand years. Though we share a common ancestor, scientists have been unable to find any traces of when the two species split. However, a recent discovery in Italy may provide some clues.
Similar, Yet Different
The earliest remains of modern humans date back to between 200,000 and 300,000 years ago. Neanderthals are speculated to have evolved some 650,000 years ago, though the oldest remains we’ve found to date are only 400,000 years old. Records show that the Neanderthal species died out around 40,000 years ago, leaving us with at least 160,000 years of coexistence, during which time genetic records show that interbreeding occurred.
Still, the two species remained different enough that the smarter Homo sapiens outlasted the brawnier Homo neanderthalensis. What interests scientists more is what caused the two similar species to split from their common ancestor.
The Hominid Family Tree
From about 700,000 to 300,000 years ago, Homo heidelbergensis, the precursor to modern humans, Neanderthals, and Denisovans dominated the hominid niche. Sometime in that window, the lineage split into those three subgroupings, but until recently, scientists hadn’t been able to pinpoint a link that confirmed that divide.
Scientists found 450,000-year-old teeth in Italy that exhibit features of both modern humans and Neanderthals. The age of the teeth places them right around the time when scientists expect a divergence to have occurred. The fact that similar teeth were found in two different locations, one near Rome and the other outside of Trieste, makes the discovery even more exciting.
Uncovering The Truth
A majority of the Neanderthal fossils found date between 130,000 and 40,000 years old, so discovering these mid-Pleistocene teeth is incredibly rare. What’s more, similar fossils of humanoid teeth that lack the Neanderthal traits have also been found, indicating the possibility of multiple hominid subgroups existing in the area during the time of divergence.
Researchers intend to study these ancient dental records to learn more about our ancient ancestors, including what they ate and how they lived. Our family tree is full of twists and knots, but these recent discoveries are gradually helping us unravel the truth about our humble origins.