Dental enamel thickness, topography, growth and development vary among hominins. In Homo, the thickness of dental enamel in most Pleistocene hominins display variations from thick to hyper-thick, while Neanderthals exhibit proportionally thinner enamel. The origin of the thin trait remains unclear. In this context, the Middle Pleistocene human dental assemblage from Atapuerca-Sima de los Huesos (SH) provides a unique opportunity to trace the evolution of enamel thickness in European hominins. In this study, we aim to test the hypothesis if the SH molar sample approximates the Neanderthal condition for enamel thickness and/or distribution. This study includes 626 molars, both original and comparative data. We analysed the molar inner structural organization of the original collections (n = 124), belonging to SH(n = 72) and modern humans from Spanish origin (n = 52). We compared the SH estimates to those of extinct and extant populations of the genus Homo from African, Asian and European origin (estimates extracted from literature n = 502). The comparative sample included maxillary and mandibular molars belonging to H. erectus, East and North African Homo, European Middle Pleistocene Homo, Neanderthals, and fossil and extant H. sapiens. We used high-resolution images to investigate the endostructural configuration of SH molars (tissue proportions, enamel thickness and distribution). The SH molars exhibit on average thick absolute and relative enamel in 2D and 3D estimates, both in the complete crown and the lateral enamel. This primitive condition is shared with the majority of extinct and extant hominin sample, except for Neanderthals and some isolated specimens. On the contrary, the SH molar enamel distribution maps reveal a distribution pattern similar to the Neanderthal signal (with thicker enamel on the lingual cusps and more peripherally distributed), compared to H. antecessor and modern humans. Due to the phylogenetic position of the SH population, the thick condition in molars could represent the persistence of the plesiomorphic condition in this group. Still, more data is needed on other Early and Middle Pleistocene populations to fully understand the evolutionary meaning of this trait.
Tooth crown tissue proportions and enamel thickness distribution are considered reliable characters for inferring taxonomic identity, phylogenetic relationships, dietary and behavioural adaptations in fossil and extant hominids. While most Pleistocene hominins display variations from thick to hyper-thick enamel, Neanderthals exhibit relatively thinner. However, the chronological and geographical origin for the appearance of this typical Neanderthal condition is still unknown. The European late Early Pleistocene species Homo antecessor (Gran Dolina-TD6 site, Sierra de Atapuerca) represents an opportunity to investigate the appearance of the thin condition in the fossil record. In this study, we aim to test the hypothesis if H. antecessor molars approximates the Neanderthal condition for tissue proportions and enamel thickness. To do so, for the first time we characterised the molar inner structural organization in this Early Pleistocene hominin taxon (n = 17) and compared it to extinct and extant populations of the genus Homo from African, Asian and European origin (n = 355). The comparative sample includes maxillary and mandibular molars belonging to H. erectus, East and North African Homo, European Middle Pleistocene Homo, Neanderthals, and fossil and extant H. sapiens. We used high-resolution images to investigate the endostructural configuration of TD6 molars (tissue proportions, enamel thickness and distribution). TD6 permanent molars tend to exhibit on average thick absolute and relative enamel in 2D and 3D estimates, both in the complete crown and the lateral enamel. This condition is shared with the majority of extinct and extant hominin sample, except for Neanderthals and some isolated specimens. However, while the total crown percentage of dentine in TD6 globally resembles the low modern values, the lateral crown percentage of dentine tends to be much higher, closer to the Neanderthal signal. Similarly, the H. antecessor molar enamel distribution maps reveal a relative distribution pattern that is more similar to the Neanderthal condition (with the thickest enamel more spread at the periphery of the occlusal basin) rather than that of other fossil specimens and modern humans (with thicker cuspal enamel). Future studies on European Middle Pleistocene populations will provide more insights into the evolutionary trajectory of the typical Neanderthal dental structural organization.
We here present a comparative study of the Montmaurin-LN Middle Pleistocene mandible (Haute-Garonne, France). This mandible, of which its right and left molar series are preserved in situ, was found in La Niche cave (Montmaurin’s karst system) in 1949, and was first attributed to the ‘Mindel-Riss’ interglacial (= MIS 9 to 11) based on its geological context. Later studies based on geological and faunal evidence have attributed the Montmaurin-LN mandible to MIS 7. Following a detailed morphological and metric comparative study of the mandible in the 1970s, it was interpreted in the light of a still limited fossil record and the prevailing paradigm back then. Waiting for geochronological studies in the forthcoming years, here we review the main morphological and metrical features of this mandible and its molars, which have been reassessed in the framework of a remarkably enlarged Pleistocene fossil record since the mandible was first described, and our current, more in-depth understanding of human evolution in Europe. Using a selection of mandibular features with potential taxonomic signal we have found that the Montmaurin-LN mandible shares only a few derived traits with Neandertals. Our analyses reveal that this mandible is more closely related to the ancient specimens from the African and Eurasian Early and Middle Pleistocene, particularly due to the presence of primitive features of the Homo clade. In contrast, the external morphology of the molars is clearly similar to that of Neandertals. The results are assessed in the light of the present competing hypotheses used to explain the European hominin fossil record.