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Why did Neanderthals look different to us?

New research reveals pattern of facial bone growth of ancient species.

The Neanderthals’ protruding face and the flatter faces of modern humans make a clear difference between the two species. A research team from the Natural History Museum, New York University and other institutions today reveals how the development of facial bone structure creates this intriguing difference.

Published in Nature today, their paper explains that after birth there is a gradual increase in the layering of bone deposits in the face for both species. While in Neanderthals bone deposits continue through teenage years, in modern humans this is counterbalanced by bone removal, resulting in a flatter face.

The protruding face, or midfacial prognathism, of Neanderthals partly reflects the continuous process of bone deposition. The research team focussed on the upper jaw bones of a young Neanderthal specimen in the Museum collections that was found in 1926 in deposits near Devil’s Tower, below the North face of the Rock of Gibraltar. The specimen is one of few remains discovered of Neanderthal children and it has aided researchers in filling in gaps on what drives the growth of the Neanderthal face.

The Museum’s Professor Chris Stringer said: “The Devil’s Tower child died close to 5 years of age and this difference in facial growth from modern humans was already apparent by then. This research shows how fossils found 90 years ago can still provide crucial information on human evolution through new investigative techniques.”

Specimens of Australopithecus and early Homo demonstrate similar patterns of facial bone growth to Neanderthals and their ancestors. The facial growth plan of modern humans is therefore distinctive, and the next research aim is to establish when and where this first appeared. The postnatal growth of modern human facial bones, which show extensive areas of bone removal, helps create a flatter face.

Co-author Rodrigo S. Lacruz, of New York University said: “Our study shows that the faces of Neanderthals and modern humans differed in key developmental processes allowing us to understand how some Neanderthal traits came about. In a sense, the Neanderthals are not a developmental oddity, we are.”

Neanderthals and their possible ancestors, the 400,000-year-old hominins from Sima de los Huesos (Atapuerca) in Spain, exhibit similar bone growth patterns, albeit with some small differences. Yet they resemble each other far more closely than they resemble modern humans. The Sima de los Huesos hominins as well as the Gibraltar Neanderthal and other Neanderthals found in France were used in this comparative study.

The Devil’s Tower young Neanderthal specimen that informed this research will go on display in the Museum’s upcoming Human Evolution gallery, open from 18 December 2015.


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Notes for editors

Download video of Professor Chris Stringer discussing his research.
Download images from the Neanderthal bone structure folder on Box.

All images are © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

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