The 35,000 year-old skeletal remains of an individual discovered in northern Italy likely had a Neanderthal mother and a modern human father, according to a study published this week.
The study, by anthropologists at the University of Ai-Marseille, focused on the hybrid’s jaw and skull fragments which were first unearthed in 1957 in the Riparo Mezzena rock-shelter in the Monti Lessini region of Italy.
The team used DNA analysis and 3D imaging to compare the remains with modern human features. The DNA analysis showed that the hybrid’s mitochondrial DNA, inherited directly from its mother, is Neanderthal. The 3D imaging suggested that the hybrid inherited elements of its father’s modern human morphology (i.e. looks).
Co-author Silvana Condemi, said: “From the morphology of the lower jaw, the face of the Mezzena individual would have looked somehow intermediate between classic Neanderthals, who had a rather receding lower jaw (no chin), and the modern humans, who present a projecting lower jaw with a strongly developed chin.”
Recent genetic research has already found that the DNA of people with European and Asian ancestry is up to 4% Neanderthal, but the remains would be the first archaeological evidence that male humans and female Neanderthals produced living offspring, if further analysis confirms the theory.
Previous fossil discoveries indicate that modern humans were living in southern Italy as early as 45,000 years ago, but they were probably unwelcome newcomers to Neanderthals who had lived in Europe for at least 250,000 years. The study indicates that, although the two species of human co-existed in the same region for thousands of years, they kept their distance. They did not integrate into a single population and maintained separate cultures. Instances of interbreeding were infrequent, and the replacement of Neanderthals by modern humans was a slow process.