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A skull fragment from almost half a million years ago could provide new insights into how humans evolved in western Europe during the middle Pleistocene.
The remarkable fossil also provides tantalising hints about a possible ancestor of the Neanderthals, researchers said.
Aroeira - Cave - Site - Cranium - Fossil
It was unearthed from the Aroeira cave site, and marks the oldest human cranium fossil ever found in Portugal.
But there is plenty of mystery around the skull. Researchers don't know if it was from a male or female, how the person died, or even what form of early human it was.
Lot - Question - Fossils - Ancestors - Neanderthals
'There is a lot of question about which species these fossils represent. I tend to think of them as ancestors of the Neanderthals,' co-author Rolf Quam, an anthropologist at Binghamton University, State University of New York.
'It is not a Neanderthal itself,' he added.
'It - Features - Neanderthals - Lump - Bone
'It has some features that might be related to the later Neanderthals,' including a lump of bone near the ear called the mastoid process.
Researchers say this bone may be related to regulating pressure in the ear, although its exact purpose is unclear.
Fragment - Characteristics - Ancestor - Neanderthals - Humans
The ancient fragment, bears characteristics showing it is the ancestor of both Neanderthals and humans ancestors.
This suggests that, while Neanderthals evolved in Europe and modern humans evolved in Africa, the two never formed separate species.
Ancestors - Species - Continents - Researchers
Instead, our ancestors could have come from one interbreeding species spread across the two continents, according to researchers.
What researchers can say with certainty is that the skull belonged to an adult, based on the formation of the bones.
Couple - Teeth - Belonging - Adult - Child
A couple of teeth found with it appear worn, as if belonging to an adult rather than a child.
They also know its age - 400,000 years - based on precision dating of the surrounding stalagmites and sediments.
Skulls - Kind - Europe
The same cannot be said for other skulls of its kind found elsewhere in Europe.
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