Inner morphological and metric characterization of the molar remains from the Montmaurin-La Niche mandible: The Neanderthal signal

Here, we present a metric and morphological study of the molar remains from the Montmaurin-La Niche mandible by means of microcomputed tomography. According to the last analysis, based on the combination of geomorphological and paleontological data, the level bearing this human mandible probably corresponds to the marine isotope stages (MIS) 7. These data place the Montmaurin-La Niche in a chronologically intermediate position between the Neanderthals and the Middle Pleistocene fossils (e.g., Sima de los Huesos, la Caune de l’Arago). A recent study has revealed that while the mandible is more closely related to the Early and Middle Pleistocene African and Eurasian populations, the morphology of the outer enamel surfaces of its molars is typical of the Neanderthal linage. The data presented here are in line with this finding because the morphology of the enamel-dentine junction of the molars is similar to that of Neanderthals, whereas the absolute and relative enamel thickness values (2D and 3D) are closer to those exhibited by some Early Pleistocene hominins. Moreover, the pulp cavity morphology and proportions are in concordance with the Neanderthal populations. Our results strengthen the hypothesis that the settlement of Europe could be the result of several migrations, at different times, originated from a common source population. Thus, the variability in the European Middle Pleistocene populations (e.g., Montmaurin, Sima de los Huesos, Arago, Mala Balanica) could indicate different migrations at different times and/or population fragmentation, without excluding the possible hybridization between residents and new settlers.

A reassessment of the Montmaurin-La Niche mandible (Haute Garonne, France) in the context of European Pleistocene human evolution

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.