European Commission logo
English English
CORDIS - EU research results

Origins and Evolution of the Neanderthal Cranial Morphology

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - NEANDER-TALe (Origins and Evolution of the Neanderthal Cranial Morphology)

Reporting period: 2021-02-01 to 2023-01-31

The NEANDER-TALe project taims to understand the evolutive model of the derived cranial morphological trait acquisition in Neanderthals, by studying and describing the remains from the site that has provided higher number of Neanderthals from MIS 7 and MIS 6, Abri Suard.
Neanderthals were the human group that lived mostly in Eurasia for 200 thousand years at the same time that the modern humans lived in Africa. The overall anatomy of Neanderthals significantly differs from that of modern humans, and the cranium shows a distinct morphology that helps to characterise this group.
The origin of these humans, including both the time of divergence between the Neanderthal and modern human lineages and their evolution mode have been a matter of intense debate for the scientific community for decades now. In addition, due to their chronological overlap, these two groups had several interactions and admixture events between them that shaped their genetic diversity. These events have implications today regarding modern human genetic diversity.
While the fossil record of "classic" Neanderthals (those that lived between 100,000 to 40,000 years ago) is relatively rich, the fossil record of the first representatives of Neanderthals is not as complete, and therefore the knowledge of their morphology is scarcely known.
Abri Suard is one of the archaeological sites present in the "La Chaise-de-Vouthon" cave in Charente (France). This site that was excavated during the 1950s by Pierre David, and then again from the 1960s to the 1980s by André Débenath, has provided the archaeological community with one of the richest human fossil collection corresponding to the first Neanderthals, with 52 fossil remains corresponding to different individuals.
NEANDER-TALe has as objective to by combining classical morphological studies and Virtual Anthropology Techniques, to describe the cranial morphology of the fossils from Abri Suard, and then using their context compare them to the available Neanderthal fossils to try to describe the form of the evolution of the distinctive Neanderthal cranial morphological traits. For this, two main areas were selected to be analysed: the bony labyrinth situated in the inner ear, and the cranial vault.
Despite the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the development of the project, the fossil collection of Abri Suard has been scanned and its morphology characterised. In addition, we have re-studied the faunal collection of the site, and we have found new Neanderthal remains amongst the faunal fossils, and we have reinterpreted the fieldwork notes from André Débenaths excavations in order to better understand the context of the discovery of the human fossils.

To characterise the morphology of the bony labyrinth we have applied already well established protocols for the linear and angular measurements based on the 2D image stack obtained from the micro CT scan, but we have also explored and developed the Geometric Morphometric approach, using both a landmark based and a landmark free approach. In this sense, we observe that the fossils from Abri Suard present the main characteristics from the Neanderthal morphology, the relatively low posterior canal for example, but they present some differences from the classic Neanderthals too. The protocol for the developed Geometric Morphometric approach will be available for the community once the results are published.

The cranial vault also presents typical Neanderthal characteristics, such as the presence of the iniac fossa, the relatively low morphology and the thickness also corresponds to those observed in Neanderthal samples.

This work has been disseminated in 3 congress communications to date, and in two public talks. In addition, several papers are in preparation at this point. All the raw data and the virtual models of all the collection will be made available to the community once the analyses and the exploitation of the results is finished.
As NEANDER-TALe has been affected amonst others by the consequences of Covid-19 pandemics, some data are still under analysis or on way of publication. However, we have been able to characterise the cranial morphology of some of the oldest Neanderthal individuals from Western Europe, this will be essential to lead to discussions on the evolutionary processes that shaped the Neanderthal cranial morphology during the Middle Palaeolithic.