Planet Earth

A Breed Apart

By Tim FolgerJan 1, 1996 6:00 AM


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Who were the Neanderthals? Although it was once thought that Neanderthals evolved into modern humans, most anthropologists now believe they were a separate species that mysteriously died out some 30,000 years ago. This past year saw more evidence that Neanderthals were indeed a breed apart.

Biologist Christoph Zollikofer and his colleagues at the University of Zurich designed a computer program to reconstruct a Neanderthal child’s skull from just five puzzling bone fragments found in 1928 in Gibraltar. Nobody knew whether these fragments belonged to one skull or two, says Zollikofer. His program answered that question and others as well.

In this computer image, the yellow and white parts represent original skull fragments. The green areas are reconstructed. The program essentially created mirror images of extant pieces to fashion a complete skull. After making a plastic cast of the reconstructed skull, the researchers found that the lower and upper jaws lined up precisely, evidence that the fragments almost certainly came from one child.

The computer model also enabled the researchers to make detailed comparisons of the Neanderthal child’s skull with that of a modern human child, and they found that the child possessed features classically associated with Neanderthal adults--a skull markedly thicker than a modern human’s, enclosing a larger volume and lacking a chin. The Neanderthal was probably only three or four when it died, says Zollikofer. If you see those differences at such an early age, he says, it means the reason for them may be genetic and not environmental. Different genes certainly suggest different species. Whoever the Neanderthals were, it seems, they were not us.

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