Science as a discipline is super-dynamic, wherein nothing is ever final or absolutely proven. There’s always a chance of some new find which could overturn all that was previously believed.
Now, one such find could possibly change what we have always known and believed about the origin and presence of humans (aka homo sapiens) in Europe.
Back in 1887, a mandible (jawbone) was discovered in the Spanish town of Banyoles. It dates back to approximately 45,000-65,000 years ago — at a time when Europe was occupied by Neandertals — making it one of the oldest human fossils found on the continent.
Keeping in mind its age, location and, most importantly, the distinct lack of a chin (a feature considered one of the hallmarks of Homo sapiens), the fossil has been classified as a Neanderthal for over a century!
But now, this centuries-old interpretation has been dismantled thanks to a recent analysis by an international research team, including scientists at Binghamton University and the State University of New York.
The team used virtual techniques to reconstruct the fossil’s missing parts and assemble a 3D computer model for further analysis. They employed a process known as three-dimensional geometric morphometrics, which analysed the geometric properties of the jawbone and compared its overall shape with that of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens.
“Our results found something quite surprising — Banyoles shared no distinct Neandertal traits and did not overlap with Neandertals in its overall shape,” said Brian Keeling, a Binghamton University graduate student.
If not a Neanderthal, then who?
“We were confronted with results that were telling us Banyoles is not a Neandertal, but the fact that it does not have a chin made us think twice about assigning it to Homo sapiens,” said Rolf Quam, professor of anthropology at Binghamton University, State University of New York.
Given this dilemma, reaching a scientific consensus about the exact placement of the Banyoles fossil presents a challenge.
But, scientists have narrowed down two possibilities — either they have found a previously unknown population of Homo sapiens; or Banyoles was a hybrid between our ancestors and another non-Neandertal unidentified human species.
However, the only fossils recovered from Europe at the time of Banyoles are Neandertals, which makes the latter hypothesis less likely. And if Banyoles does turn out to be a member of our species, this pre-historic figure would be the earliest Homo sapiens ever documented in Europe!
It might take an ancient DNA or proteomic analysis to demystify who Banyoles exactly was — a lone ‘Sapien’ surrounded by Neanderthals, or perhaps someone we are yet to discover?
The study was published in the Journal of Human Evolution and can be accessed here.
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