In 1942, a human braincase was found in Romania during phosphate mining. The skull’s geological age has remained uncertain. Now, new radiocarbon analysis appearing in the August issue of Current Anthropology directly dates the skull to approximately 33,000 years ago, placing it in the Upper Paleolithic.
Though this braincase is in many ways similar to other known specimens from the period, the fossil also presents a distinctly Neanderthal feature, ubiquitous among Neanderthals, extremely rare among archaic humans, and unknown among prior modern humans.
“The mosaic is most parsimoniously explained as the result of a modest level of admixture with [Neanderthals] as modern humans dispersed across Europe,” write Andrei Soficaru (Institutul de Anthropologie, Romania), Catalin Petrea (Institutul de Speologie, Romania), Adiran Dobos (Institutl de Arheologie, Romania), and Erik Trinkaus (Washington University, St. Louis). “Given the reproductive compatibility of many closely related species and the culturally mediated nature of mate choice in humans, such admixture should neither be rare nor unexpected.”
Known as the Cioclovina 1 neurocranium, the skull is one of a very small number of European early modern humans securely dated prior to ca. 28,000 before present. It is unusual in its preservation, showing little signs of external abrasion and no carnivore damage to the bone. The person’s age-at-death was probably somewhere in the 40’s, “best considered mature, but not geriatric,” the authors write.
The skull has been described from the outset as that of an early modern human, due to ear anatomy, details of the neck muscle attachments, and the presence of a high, rounded braincase. The lateral bones resemble those of recent human males. However, the area above the neck muscles contains a distinctly Neanderthal feature, a suprainiac fossa – a groove above the inion, or, the place on the bone at the lower back of a human skull that juts out the farthest.
“This feature implies some level of Neanderthal ancestry in this otherwise modern human fossil,” the authors explain. “It joins other early modern European fossils, from the sites of Oase and Muierii in Romania, Mlasdec in the Czech Republic, and Les Rois in France in indicating some degree of Neanderthal admixture occurred when modern humans spread across Europe starting around 40,000 years ago.”
Reference: Andrei Soficaru, Catalin Petrea, Adiran Dobos, and Erik Trinkaus. “The Human Cranium from the Pestera Cioclovina Uscata, Romania.” Current Anthropology 48:4.
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