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Study: Neanderthal, Human Link Older Than Previously Thought

  • skull

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    A hominid skull.

  • Diversity in molar and premolar morphology

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    Photo: Aida Gómez-Robles

    Diversity in premolar and molar morphology in Neanderthals, modern humans and potential ancestral species.

Several human-like fossils have been suggested as the possible link between modern humans and Neanderthals—humans’ closest prehistoric relative.

But a new study involving Indiana University indicates scientists may have been looking in the wrong continent and the wrong time period.

Many researchers have thought the common ancestor between humans and Neanderthals was in Europe, but by studying the teeth of hominins, which are human relatives, IU Geological Sciences professor David Polly and an international team of researchers found the known fossils in or around Europe only belong to the Neanderthal lineage and don’t link to modern humans.

Polly says his team also found the Neanderthal species diverged from humans much earlier than previous estimates.

“One thing it means is that Neanderthals had pretty clearly split from modern humans or the lineage leading to modern humans before Neanderthals moved into Europe. It also seems to push the age of the split between them back to about a million years,” Polly says.

That rules out Europe as a place to find the common ancestor.

“Some of the fossil material that is found in Europe younger than a million years old is not going to be the fossil ancestor. Rather, probably material that is starting to emerge from Africa about a million years ago is likely to be the common ancestor,” Polly says.

Polly says more researchers are now looking to Africa but so far few fossils have been found in the region.

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