"The Aroeria cranium increases the anatomical diversity in the human fossil record from this time period, suggesting different populations showed somewhat different combinations of features", said Rolf Quam, a co-writer of the study and an anthropologist from Binghamton University in NY, in a press release. The team isn't sure whether the skull belongs to a newfound species of hominin, but noted that the skull appeared "broadly ancestral" to the Neanderthals, said study co-researcher Rolf Quam, an associate professor of biological anthropology at Binghamton University in NY.
However, researchers managed to determine that the skull belonged to an adult. However, it was no easy process and it took them two years to extract the skull from the cemented block.
The cranium discovered in Portugal's Aroeira cave belonged to a Neanderthal, the nearest extinct relative of homo sapiens sapiens.
Researchers found the skull on the last day of their field season in 2014. It is thought that multiple other archaic humans made the journey, including Homo ergaster some 2 million years ago and Homo heidelbergensis, whose ancestors that remained in Africa eventually gave rise to our species.
It is the oldest fossil of a cranium ever found in Portugal and has been dubbed a huge find in mapping human evolution. Some were uncovered years ago before modern technology existed.
To see what the whole thing might have looked like, the team put it into a computed tomography (CT) scanner after the extraction to create a virtual reconstruction of the remains.
Researchers hope that with these new feature combinations on a well-dated skull, they will be able to sort out how different fossils in Europe are related to one another and which ones later evolved into the Neanderthals.
A large team of researchers made a wonderful discovery which could have unearthed one of the most important parts of human evolution.
"The results of this study are only possible thanks to the arduous work of numerous individuals over the last several years", said Quam. Now, a newly discovered skull found in the cave of Aroeira in Portugal offers clues that may help solve the mystery of the Neanderthal ancestry.
Quam said he counted himself as fortunate to have been involved in the research, as it represents the most positive aspects of global scientific collaboration. Other skulls coming from the same period were either poorly dated or had no clear archaeological context.
The fossil will be the showpiece of a human evolution exhibit at the National Archeology Museum in Lisbon, Portugal, this October.
The tantalizing findings were detailed in the latest edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a peer-reviewed US journal.