Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Hybrid Humans? Volume 52 Number 4, July/August 1999
by Spencer P.M. Harrington

[image] Bones of possible Neandertal-Cro-Magnon hybrid (Courtesy Joäo Zilhäo) [LARGER IMAGE]

Analysis of the skeletal remains of a four-year-old child buried some 25,000 years ago in a Portuguese rock-shelter suggests early modern humans and Neandertals may have interbred. The prominent chin, tooth size, and pelvic measurements mark the boy as a Cro-Magnon, or fully modern human, but his stocky body and short legs indicate Neandertal heritage, says paleoanthropologist Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St. Louis. Interbreeding could explain the fate of the Neandertals, who disappeared from Iberia 28,000 years ago.

Trinkaus went to Portugal after archaeologists found the burial at Lagar Velho in the Lapedo Valley north of Lisbon (see "Early Portuguese Burial," March/April 1999). "The first thing I noticed was his chin," says Trinkaus, who initially assumed the remains were of an early modern human. When he examined his measurements of the boy's limbs, the proportions were "a dead-ringer" for Neandertal skeletons. While Neandertals are thought to have been extinct for 3,000 years before the boy was born, he appears to be a descendant of Neandertal-Cro-Magnon hybrids. Interbreeding would suggest that Neandertals belonged to our species and contributed genes to European ancestry.

Trinkaus says he is "completely confident" that the remains are the first evidence of a Neandertal-early human mix. "Neandertals and Cro-Magnons were two different groups of people with contrasting technologies," he surmises, "yet they recognized each other as people and treated each other as such."

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America