Thursday, December 21, 2006

 

Neanderthals: HYMS researchers focus on human evolution

UK: A Hull York Medical School (HYMS) researcher has played a key role in a study which has cast important new light on Neanderthals.

Dr Markus Bastir was part of an Anglo-Spanish team which studied 43,000-year-old Neanderthal remains at El Sidron in Spain, revealing significant physical differences between those from northern and southern Europe.

Dr Bastir, who was based in the functional morphology and evolution research unit* (fme) of HYMS for the last two years, analysed the mandibles of Neanderthals discovered at El Sidron. The analysis revealed north-south variations, with southern European Neanderthals showing broader faces with increased lower facial heights. The research findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

It comes as the University of Hull's Centre for Medical Engineering and Technology (CMET), in which the fme is a partner, carried out detailed imaging of part of the upper jaw of what could be Britain's most substantial Neanderthal fossil discovered at Kent's Cavern in Torbay in 1926. The imaging using CMET's micro Computerised Tomography facilities was carried out on behalf of the Natural History Museum's Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project supported by the Leverhulme Trust.

Dr Bastir first studied the facial evolution of Neanderthals while at the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales in Madrid. Later in the fme at HYMS, he analysed the mandibles of the El Sidron remains, under the supervision of Professor Paul O'Higgins, using 3D geometric morphometric software and imaging facilities.

"This revealed an astonishing North-South morphological gradient and gives us an idea of typically Southern-European Neanderthal facial shape," Dr Bastir said.

Professor O'Higgins said the two studies helped to demonstrate the growing importance of the HYMS functional morphology and evolution Unit, which has been established with more than £3million funding support from the Leverhulme Trust, the European Union, the Australian Research Council, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), Biotechnology and Biosciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

"At York we have developed an exciting collaboration with colleagues from the Department of Archaeology to form PALAEO - the Centre for Human Palaeoecology and Evolutionary Origins, while at Hull we have formed a partnership with colleagues in Engineering and Computer Science in establishing the Centre for Medical Engineering and Technology," he added.

"Through the grant support we have raised we have been able to pick the best students and post doctoral fellows from Europe and more widely bringing them to Hull and York to work on leading edge issues in our field."

Source: University of York (UK) press release 21st December, 2006 [Anthropology]

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Related PNAS paper:

Paleobiology and comparative morphology of a late Neandertal sample from El Sidron, Asturias, Spain

Antonio Rosas, Cayetana Martinez-Maza, Markus Bastir et al.

Published online before print December 12, 2006, 10.1073/pnas.0609662104
PNAS | December 19, 2006 | vol. 103 | no. 51 | 19266-19271

Abstract

Fossil evidence from the Iberian Peninsula is essential for understanding Neandertal evolution and history. Since 2000, a new sample approx 43,000 years old has been systematically recovered at the El Sidron cave site (Asturias, Spain). Human remains almost exclusively compose the bone assemblage. All of the skeletal parts are preserved, and there is a moderate occurrence of Middle Paleolithic stone tools. A minimum number of eight individuals are represented, and ancient mtDNA has been extracted from dental and osteological remains. Paleobiology of the El Sidron archaic humans fits the pattern found in other Neandertal samples: a high incidence of dental hypoplasia and interproximal grooves, yet no traumatic lesions are present. Moreover, unambiguous evidence of human-induced modifications has been found on the human remains. Morphologically, the El Sidron humans show a large number of Neandertal lineage-derived features even though certain traits place the sample at the limits of Neandertal variation. Integrating the El Sidron human mandibles into the larger Neandertal sample reveals a north-south geographic patterning, with southern Neandertals showing broader faces with increased lower facial heights. The large El Sidron sample therefore augments the European evolutionary lineage fossil record and supports ecogeographical variability across Neandertal populations.

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*The Functional Morphology and Evolution Research Unit at HYMS:

Research in the unit focuses on the functional, evolutionary and developmental bases of morphological variation in humans, primates and other mammals.

One major research strand in the unit aims to explain how skeletal and dental morphologies arise during evolution in terms of developmental processes and functional adaptations. The key underpinning technologies are geometric morphometrics, CT imaging, Finite Element Analysis, polarising and scanning electron microscopy. The advances in morphometrics that have arisen during this work are also being applied in functional studies and imaging.

Another focus of research in the unit is on biogeographic and temporal variation in modern and fossil primates, relating morphological variation and functional morphology to environmental change. In addition, the unit is currently developing research projects in collaboration with biomechanicists to study the effects of different locomotor repertoires on morphology and energy efficiency.

The work of the Functional Morphology and Evolution unit is directly applicable to the study of human evolution and the understanding of modern human biological variation. In addition, the unit's work has important medical applications through the use of morphometrics in CT, MR and other diagnostic imaging modalities and also in kinematic analyses of facial and body motion.

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