Lou Schuler

Author, Journalist, Presenter

Posted 01/17/2007

… and He Has his Father’s Occipital Bun

I’ve made no secret of my occasional obsession over Neanderthals, particularly the question of whether modern humans and their big-shouldered cousins ever succumbed to the love that dare not reveal its DNA. So I thought I’d share this, in case you missed it:

A skull found in a cave in Romania includes features of both modern humans and Neanderthals, possibly suggesting that the two may have interbred thousands of years ago. Neanderthals were replaced by early modern humans. Researchers have long debated whether the two groups mixed together, though most doubt it. The last evidence for Neanderthals dates from at least 24,000 years ago. The skull bearing both older and modern characteristics is discussed in a paper by Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St. Louis. The report appears in Tuesday’s issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

To see a Neanderthal skull compared to a modern human, click here. The big differences are in the angles. Our skulls are basically flat, but theirs had prominent brow ridges and a sloping forehead. Another huge difference is something called the occipital bun, a protrusion in the back of the skull that gave their heads more of a football shape. Our skulls have an occipital ridge, which you can feel with your fingers on the back of your head, just above your neck, but no bun. This newly discovered skull appears to be around 40,000 years old. (To give you an idea of how long ago that was, Robert Byrd wasn’t even in the Senate.) It has a mix of modern human and Neanderthal features:

The researchers said the skull had the same proportions as a modern human head and lacked the large brow ridge commonly associated with Neanderthals. However, there were also features that are unusual in modern humans, such as frontal flattening, a fairly large bone behind the ear and exceptionally large upper molars, which are seen among Neanderthals and other early hominids.

It also has the occipital bun, which isn’t mentioned in any of the news accounts I found this morning, but was mentioned by a scientist interviewed on NPR yesterday. Nobody can say whether this new guy is the result of human-Neanderthal carnality or is simply an interesting evolutionary intermediary — a type of human that hadn’t yet fully evolved into our magnificent species. Still, anything that even suggests our ancestors indulged in a little sex tourism on the other side of the evolutionary tracks is fun to contemplate.