Skeleton said to be mix of Neanderthals, moderns
LISBON (AP) Experts examining a 25,000-year-old child's skeleton in Portugal believe it represents compelling evidence that humans as we know them today evolved from mating between Neanderthals and anatomically modern people.
It is believed they coexisted on the Iberian Peninsula. Their hybrid offspring eventually evolved into what is recognized as modern Europeans, the director of the Portuguese Archaeological Institute theorized Friday.
Neanderthals emerged about 400,000 years ago in Europe and the Middle East and apparently disappeared 30,000 years ago. They had protruding brows and squat, powerful bodies.
"Anatomically modern man arrived on what is now the Iberian Peninsula 28,000 to 30,000 years ago, and they found Neanderthal man here," Joao Zilhao said.
"There are two theories about what happened. Some say the Neanderthal population was wiped out somehow, while anatomically modern man went on to evolve.
"But another view says there was an intermingling of the two, and the interpretation of this skeleton is that in fact there was significant hybridization," Zilhao said.
The hybrid thrived and is the genesis of modern man, according to Zilhao's theory. He said further research and finds will be required to back up his hypothesis.
Chris Stringer, an expert on Neanderthals at the Museum of Natural History in London said he had few details of the find but expected it to make a "major contribution" to the debate on how the Neanderthals died out.
The hybridization theory has been difficult to prove because previously only fragments of skeletons have been found, Stringer said in a telephone interview.
He said current evidence is not enough to make him subscribe to the hybridization theory, but added he was ready to consider the Portuguese findings with an open mind.
"The Iberian Peninsula is an area where there was a significant overlap in time and space between Neanderthal and modern man. They could have coexisted for as long as 10,000 years," he said.
The skeleton, believed to be of a 4-year-old child, was discovered by chance in November in the Lapedo Valley near Leiria, 150 km north of the Lisbon, the Portuguese capital.
Known as the Child of Lapedo, the skeleton shows traits of modern humans, including the jaw, teeth and spleen, and Neanderthal features such as the thickness of the femur and tibia, according to Zilhao.
Carbon dating shows the skeleton is about 25,000 years old, Zilhao said.
Other evidence has shown that Neanderthals and modern humans coexisted in the area about 28,000 to 30,000 years ago.
Because the skeleton dates from 3,000 years later and displays strong anatomical features of both origins, Zilhao concludes that hybridization was very deep.