Back in 1999 a juvenile skeleton was recovered from a limestone cliff site in central Portugal. The skeleton, which was the subject of intentional burial, was painted in red ochre and the grave was decorated with animal bones. Milk teeth found in the fossilised jaw [Photo 1] provided an age estimation of 4 years. Dated remains of charcoal, and bones of red deer and rabbit found in close proximity to the skeleton approximate the burial age at 24,500 years ago.
Dentition of the Lagar Velho skeleton. Note the unerupted molars and the prominent but reclining development of the chin. Source: Duarte et al., 1999.
Known as Lagar Velho 1 and/or Lapedo child, the skeleton was described as bearing a mixture of modern human and Neanderthal features – known as a morphological mosaic [Table 1]. In common with our species Homo sapiens, Lagar Velho child has a developed mental osseum (chin), which is a feature unique to our species. Tooth measurements and dimensions of the pubic (pelvic front) also align the child with our own species.
Table 1. Mixture of features displayed in Lagar Velho 1 skeleton
Radial features (curvature, tuberosity orientation)
Muscle attachment sites (pectoralis major insertion)
However, the aforementioned chin slopes backwards as in archaic species like Neanderthals rather than the forward projection reminiscent of our own [Photo 1]. What’s more, Lagar Velho is similar to Neanderthals in measurements of the lower limb bones. Neanderthal leg bones are more sturdy and stocky than our own, possibly as an adaptation to a cold climate. Could Lagar Velho prove to be a bona fide example of a Neanderthal-modern human hybrid?
1) Modern humans equipped with their Upper Palaeolithic toolkit were invading Europe nearly 45,000 years ago, although the Iberian peninsula remained a Middle Palaeolithic landscape until much later. Evidence of Neanderthal occupation at Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar, extends to 26,000 years ago. Therefore a potential overlap in population ranges can be implied.
2) Tattersall and Schwartz argue against the author’s (Duarte et al., 1999) conclusions in in the same edition of PNAS in which the original publication appeared. They account for In their view the Lagar Velho 1 skeleton was simply that of a “chunky Gravettian child” from a modern human population. All ambiguous Neanderthal-like morphological features are accounted for.
3) The Lagar Velho finds came to light 11 years before scientists announced the revelatory genetic signatures of Neanderthal-Modern Human interbreeding. However, new research suggests that conclusions of hybridisation based on genetic studies should be made with caution. Models need to instead account for population structure. Only the successful extraction and examination of ancient DNA from the Lapedo child will resolve the matter once and for all.
Reference: Duarte, C. et al., 1999. The early Upper Paleolithic human skeleton from the Abrigo do Lagar Velho (Portugal) and modern human emergence in Iberia. PNAS 96: 7604-760 9