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Neanderthal Remains Indicate More Variety Than Thought

Jun 19, 2014 05:17 PM EDT

Researcher have discovered a collection of early Neanderthal bones. Analysis of intact skulls indicate that these cousins to human ancestry were far more varied and "beautifully unique" than originally assumed.

Seventeen Neanderthal skulls were discovered in Spain's Sima de los Huesos cave. The location's name appropriately translates to "pit of bones" and proved home to a cache of remarkably well-preserved Neanderthal remains estimated to be about 430,000 years old, according to a study recently published in the journal Science.

The study details how, while these skulls do sport the characteristic thick brow and heavy jaw of the Neanderthal, they claimed many other varied features as well.

Study leader Juan Luis Arsuaga told National Geographic that these skulls date back to the earliest Neaderthals.

"They can tell us a great deal about the evolution of Neanderthals, and by comparison, about modern humans," he said.

Arsuaga tries to explain the implications of the varied traits by saying that the early Neaderthals are a lot like the people from popular book and television series "Game of Thrones."

Like in the fictional land of Westeros, early Neanderthals could likely be easily differentiated by where they were from - even while all living on the same continent - due to blood lines, isolation and a waxing and waning of certain traits.

"And winter was always coming,"  he joked, referring to a favorite catchphrase from the series.

The condition and great number of skulls also gave Arusaga's team a unique opportunity to closer analyze Neanderthal-specific characteristics - namely the thick jaw.

This was a common trait seen throughout all the skulls. Having a wide number of samples from the same time period for comparison, the researchers were able to theorize that Neanderthals developed this trait not through genetic drift and isolationism, like some research suggests, but through true adaptation.

The remains were found with limited tools, save a crude hand axe. Early humans during this same period were far more advanced in terms of weaponry and even cutlery.

Instead, the researchers say, Neanderthals simply relied on their strong jaws to chew through whatever they needed to - their teeth being the only tool they needed.

The study was published in Science on June 20.

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