Two sets of Neanderthal teeth found in Jersey show some distinctly human characteristics, hinting that these two individuals may have been part of a “hybrid population” produced from interbreeding between Neanderthals and modern humans.
The 13 Neanderthal teeth were originally discovered in the early 20th century at the site of La Cotte de St Brelade in Jersey, a small British island found off the north coast of France. Nearby cave deposits suggest the teeth are less than 48,000 years old, which is extremely young considering Neanderthals went extinct around 40,000 years ago.
The new study, published in the Journal of Human Evolution, shows that the teeth have some clear Neanderthal characteristics, but they’re not typical of these extinct hominins. Along with lacking certain features you’d expect to see in Neanderthal teeth, they have a distinct shape that’s typical of modern humans. The teeth were previously assumed to have belonged to the same individual, but new research suggests they came from at least two adults, which hints at traits prevalent in the population.
This could indicate that the hominins in La Cotte might have been a “hybrid population” that had a strong mix of Neanderthal and modern human ancestry, an idea that the researchers from the UK's Natural History Museum, UCL Institute of Archaeology, and the University of Kent hope to back up with evidence from ancient DNA.
“Given that modern humans overlapped with Neanderthals in some parts of Europe after 45,000 years ago, the unusual features of these La Cotte individuals suggest that they could have had a dual Neanderthal-modern human ancestry,” said lead researcher Professor Chris Stringer from the Natural History Museum in a statement via email.
“This idea of a hybrid population could be tested by the recovery of ancient DNA from the teeth, something that is now under investigation.”
This might sound like a far-out idea, but it's well-established that humans and Neanderthals widely interbred with each other on multiple occasions throughout their overlapping history. As a result of this canoodling, every human population on Earth is thought to have some Neanderthal DNA knocking around in their genome. This is especially true for people of European descent, who are estimated to have around 1 to 4 percent of their genes stem from Neanderthal ancestry.
It’s also clear that humans and Neanderthals had offspring and widely interbred with Denisovans, another extinct species of hominin that lived in Eurasia. In 2018, scientists discovered a fleck of bone in a remote cave in Siberia that belonged to a teenage girl, no younger than 13 years old, that had a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father.