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Fossil profile: Skhūl 1 and the mixing of populations

A child's skull from Mount Carmel gives an occasion to look at the history of ideas about population mixture.

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The Mugharat es Skhūl is today quite a small cave or rock shelter in the side of the Nahal Me’arot, a wadi running from Mount Carmel, Israel. The archaeological deposits at Skhūl were in terraces outside the cave’s present entrance, where a calcified breccia cemented artifacts, animal bones, and human remains together. Theodore McCown directed the excavation of the Mousterian archaeological deposits in 1931 and 1932, working with Dorothy Garrod who took on the direct oversight of excavation of the much more extensive archaeological deposits at nearby Tabun Cave.

Skhūl turned out to be a much richer source of human remains. The first skeleton that McCown’s excavation uncovered was the burial of a child of around 3 to 5 years of age. McCown’s workers later uncovered additional human remains from at least nine additional individuals, mostly adults, from contexts that he attributed to the same archaeological deposit as this child.

McCown and Arthur Keith would later describe the human remains from Skhūl as a population “in the throes of evolution” due to the mixture of “neanthropic” and “paleoanthropic” features in their skeletons. Their interpretation supposed that European Neandertals were a specialized form, and the less specialized Skhūl hominins were probably early relatives of this population. Shortly after their description, the evolutionary geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky proposed that these skeletal remains were instead the result of hybridization between “modern” and Neandertal populations. All of these authors focused most of their attention upon the adult remains.

Skhūl 1, like the adults, has a mixture of some features that are usually found in Neandertals and many more typical of recent humans. Anne-Marie Tillier described it as a “developmental mosaic”. The way that such features develop is very important to how we must understand population mixture. We know a good amount about Neandertal children, but fossils of children from other samples of Pleistocene humans are very rare.

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John Hawks

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I'm a paleoanthropologist exploring the world of ancient humans and our fossil relatives.

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