The bleeding handaxe

National Geographic News' most popular story today is "Odd skull boosts human, Neandertal interbreeding theory."

The NGN article is about a paper coming out in Current Anthropology this month by Andrei Soficaru and colleagues, describing a skull from Pestera Cioclovina, Romania. The skull is between 28,000 and 29,000 radiocarbon years old, and the authors argue that its occipital bone preserves Neandertal-like morphology. The NGN article has some trouble describing the situation, settling for this:

The otherwise human skull has a groove at the base of the back of the skull, just above the neck muscle, that is ubiquitous in Neandertal specimens but has never been seen in the remains of a modern human, argues study leader Erik Trinkaus, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
"I was frankly quite surprised to see it when I was looking at the specimen," Trinkaus said. "My first reaction was, that shouldn't be there."

The "groove" is a suprainiac fossa, which I can understand is technical, but it's too easy to dismiss things as "a bump here and a groove there" if you ignore the pattern that emerges from which bumps and grooves are there.

Anyway, more on early humans in Europe later. The article ends with an interview with Eric Delson, who is not dismissive but not convinced, either. The final paragraph has this priceless quote:

"But the genetic evidence is not in favor of hybridization, and this fossil does not convince me, nor do the several from Central Europe. I am still waiting for a 'smoking gun,' or perhaps in this case 'a bleeding hand axe.'"

Hmmm....that seems a little like demanding a sign from beyond. I grant, a suprainiac fossa is not exactly stigmata, but hey, a bump here and groove there, and pretty soon you're talking real interbreeding!

The bleeding handaxe

The bleeding handaxe. Original photo thanks to Wessex Archaeology, Creative Commons license