Prehistoric teeth hint at Stone Age sex with Neanderthals
Evidence of a hybrid population of Neanderthals and modern humans may be ancient teeth from La Cotte de St Brelade in Jersey.
The collection of 13 teeth, found in 1910 and 1911, were originally believed to be Neanderthal fossils, belonging to one individual.
Recently, researchers from the Museum, the UCL Institute of Archaeology, the University of Kent and four other institutions met to re-examine the teeth.
Their new analysis, published in the Journal of Human Evolution, has shown that the teeth actually came from two different individuals.
What’s more, while all the teeth have Neanderthal characteristics and their dimensions are consistent with those of Neanderthals, several of the teeth lack features normally found in these ancient humans.
In fact, certain aspects of their shape are typical of modern humans, Homo sapiens.
We know from dating work at the site that the teeth are less than 48,000 years old, so they could be some of the youngest Neanderthal remains known – the Neanderthals are believed to have disappeared about 40,000 years ago.
It is also known that modern humans overlapped with Neanderthals in some parts of Europe after 45,000 years ago.
So the unusual features of these cross-bred individuals suggest that the Jersey population could have had a dual ancestry.
Chris Stringer, a human evolution expert at the Museum, says, ‘These teeth are less than 48,000 years old, which puts them into the time frame when Neanderthals and Homo sapiens overlapped. It does add to the possibility that there was a population with a mixed ancestry.
‘This idea of a hybrid population could be tested by examining ancient DNA from the teeth, which we are hoping to do in the future.’
The teeth are on display in the Jersey Museum & Art Gallery but were brought to the Natural History Museum for analysis.
Neanderthal archaeology is well preserved at La Cotte de St Brelade, spanning as much as 200,000 years of the Ice Age.
Excavations at the site between 1911 and 1920 found more than 20,000 stone tools from the Middle Palaeolithic (an industry associated with the Neanderthals in Europe).
The bones of Ice Age megafauna such as mammoth and woolly rhinoceros have also been found there, as well as the only late Neanderthal human fossils known from the British Isles.
Olga Finch, Jersey Heritage’s Curator of Archaeology, says, ‘La Cotte de St Brelade is a site of huge importance and it continues to reveal stories about our ancient predecessors.
Jersey Heritage has made a big investment to secure La Cotte against the challenges posed by climate change, and work continues to find the funding for further protection and research at this ancient site, where so much more waits to be discovered.’