Humans and Neanderthals Evolved from a Mystery Common Ancestor, Huge Analysis Suggests

Here, a cast from a reconstructed Neanderthal skull. Researchers just examined tooth shape among Neanderthals, humans and our close relatives to figure out when the groups diverged. Credit: Getty Images
Modern humans and Neanderthals may have diverged at least 800,000 years ago, according to an analysis of nearly 1,000 teeth from humans and our close relatives.

By Laura Geggel | LIVEScience

This new estimate is much older than previous estimates based on ancient DNA analyses, which put the split between humans and Neanderthals as happening between 500,000 and 300,000 years ago.

However, while outside researchers called the new dental analysis impressive, they note that it’s based on one big assumption: that tooth shape evolves in a steady fashion, especially in Neanderthals. If tooth shape doesn’t evolve at a steady rate, then „the construction of this paper collapses,“ said Fernando Ramirez Rozzi, director of research specializing in human evolution at France’s National Center for Scientific Research in Toulouse, who was not involved in the study. [Photos: See the Ancient Faces of a Man-Bun Wearing Bloke and a Neanderthal Woman]

That said, it is quite possible that teeth (and Neanderthal teeth in particular) do evolve at a predictable rate, meaning the new study’s calculation might be on target. „At the moment, there is the idea of a steady evolutionary rate change in the shape of cheek-teeth,“ Ramirez Rozzi said.

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