450,000-year-old human teeth reveal Neanderthal characteristics

French and Italian research teams have analyzed by X-ray scans the oldest human teeth discovered on the Italian peninsula. These specimens, some 450,000 years old, from the Italian sites of Fontana Ranuccio, 50km from Rome, and from Visogliano, less than 20km from Trieste, already show Neanderthal characteristics. The study conducted by Clément Zanolli, paleoanthropologist at Toulouse III University, has just been published in the journal PLOS One.

Virtual rendering of molars Vis. 3 and FR1R from sites of Visogliano and Fontana Ranuccio. The semi-transparent view shows the morphology of dentin under the enamel and the pulp cavity. © Clement Zanolli

The history of the Neanderthals is still unknown, especially in the earliest period of their development, from the time their lineage splits from ours around the transition from the Lower and Middle Pleistocene (between 1 million years and about 650,000 years ago), to the emergence of classical Neanderthals less than 200,000 years ago. One of the key periods for understanding the origin of Neanderthals is thus between 500,000 and 350,000 years ago.

An international collaboration involving French and Italian researchers allowed to study the internal structure of dental remains from these two Italian sites using high-resolution imaging methods. X-ray microtomography analysis of various parameters such as the proportions of the dental tissue, the thickness of the enamel, the morphology of dentin and pulp cavity allowed to highlight some characteristics commonly found in Neanderthals, which clearly differ from those specific to modern humans. The results suggest a demographic division and more or less prolonged periods of isolation. One of the important factors to consider is the climate. 450,000 years ago, northern Europe was covered by ice, and northern Spain and Italy had to be at the northern limit of habitable areas.

Sources :

CNRS – Institut Ecologie et Environnement (INEE)

Zanolli C, Martinón-Torres M, Bernardini F, Boschian G, Coppa A, Dreossi D, Mancini L, Martínez de Pinillos M, Martín-Francés L, Bermúdez de Castro JM, Tozzi C, Tuniz C, Macchiarelli R. The Middle Pleistocene (MIS 12) human dental remains from Fontana Ranuccio (Latium) and Visogliano (Friuli-Venezia Giulia), Italy. A comparative high resolution endostructural assessment. PLoS One. 2018 Oct 3;13(10):e0189773. PubMed PMID: 30281595.

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