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Skulls found in China may represent unknown species

The Washington Post
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Handout
An artist’s rendering superimposes images of recently revealed skull fragments over the site where they were discovered. (Xiujie Wu)

Modern humans outlasted the Neanderthals by about 40,000 years and counting. But don’t pat yourself on the back too firmly for outliving those troglodytes.

Neanderthals crafted tools and tamed fire. They cared for their dead. Animal horns and blackened fire pits encircling the remains of a Neanderthal toddler suggest a 42,000-year-old funeral rite. If a Neanderthal indeed wore a talon necklace, as a collection of polished eagle claws indicate, they beat us to jewelry, too. Perhaps one of your ancient ancestors found the claw necklaces sexy: Some scientists theorize humans gave Neanderthals genital herpes and tapeworm parasites.

Their proportions, however, remained distinctly Neanderthal. Neanderthal bodies were shorter and stockier; their skulls were built differently, too, with a few features — like heavy brow ridges — particularly unlike ours.

Which makes a pair of newly described skulls something of a wonder. The partial skulls have features up to this time unseen in the hominid fossil record, sharing both human and Neanderthal characteristics.

“It is a very exciting discovery,” said Katerina Harvati, an expert in Neanderthal evolution at the University of Tübingen in Germany who was not involved with the research. “Especially because the human fossil record from East Asia has been not only fragmentary but also difficult to date.”

Excavators dug up the skull cap fragments in 2007 and 2014, in Lingjing, in China’s Henan province. The diggers discovered two partial skulls in a site thought to be inhabited 105,000 to 125,000 years ago, during an epoch called the Pleistocene. The owners of the skulls were good hunters, capable of fashioning stone blades from quartz. Ancient bones of horses and cattle, as well as extinct woolly rhinoceros and giant deer, were found strewn nearby the skull remains.

The large brains of these archaic humans rule out Homo erectus and other known hominid species. The researchers are vague about what they think the species might be, describing them only as archaic humans.

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