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Anthropology/Comparison of neanderthal and modern man


Could you tell me whether the variation in shape of neanderthal/neanderthaloid skulls overlaps that of modern man?

In other words, could any modern man with a recessive forehead be classed as neanderthal/neanderthaloid or is the difference between the two subspecies too great?


There are many areas in which Neandertal and Homo sapiens skull shapes overlap. The evolutionarily crucial point is how they differ.  Evolution is all about differences.  They differ in ways that are easily identifiable on the more complete specimens and less so on specimens that are fragmentary and/or older (reflecting their closeness in time to Neandertals' and humans' last common ancestor).  Some similarities among recent specimens might reflect gene flow and interbreeding, but the evidence for this is controversial -based on genetic evidence of uncertain connection to skull morphology.  For a comprehensive (and very readable) discussion, see Dan Lieberman's book, The Evolution of the Human Head (2011).
No one morphological character, such as a receding forehead is sufficient to classify a living human as genetically closer to a Neandertal, because this morphology can arise from multiple causes, such as for example, the retention of the morphology from Neandertals' and humans' last common ancestor.  (To some degree, this notion that a receding forehead [and chin] reflect an evolutionarily "primitive" status comes not from anthropology but from the pseudo-science of phrenology, which, in 19th Century tried to infer qualities of individual behavior from skull shape -mainly as an aid to criminology.)  For a readable account of this pseudoscience, have a look at Steven Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man.
John Shea


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John Shea


Questions about Old World prehistoric archaeology (especially Stone Age) of Europe, Africa, and Western Asia, prehistoric human and hominid behavior, primitive technology, origin of modern humans, extinction of the Neandertals. IMPORTANT: Between February 14 and September 01, 2014, I will be on sabbatical leave. During this time I will have limited access to email. This means that there may be very long periods (i.e., weeks) between your posting a question and my having time to answer it.


>20 years as a professional anthropologist based at a research university.

Journal of Field Archaeology, Journal of Archaeological Science, Lithic Technology, Evolutionary Anthropology, Current Anthropology, Mitekufat HaEven (Journal of the Israel Prehistoric Society), Paléorient, Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, American Anthropologist, Geoarchaeology.

Ph.D (Anthropology) Harvard University, 1991.
BA (Archaeology) Boston University, 1982.

Awards and Honors
Sigma Xi Distinguished Lecturer 2012-2014

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