A comparative high-resolution endostructural study reveal Neanderthal-like features in 450,000-year-old human dental remains from the Italian Peninsula

Fossil records enable a detailed reconstruction of our planet’s history and of the evolution of our species. In particular, teeth are a sort of biological archive that record in their structures (enamel, dentine and pulp chamber) the different phases of the human evolution. An international team of researchers led by Clément Zanolli from the Université Toulouse III Paul Sabatier (France) has characterized human dental remains from Fontana Ranuccio (Latium) and Visogliano (Friuli-Venezia Giulia), Italy through a comparative high-resolution endostructural analysis based on microfocus X-ray microtomography (mCT) scanning and detailed morphological analyses. We examined the shape and arrangement of tooth tissues (see Fig. 1) and compared them with teeth of other human species (see Fig. 2). 

With an age of around 450,000 years before present, the analysed dental remains from the sites of Fontana Ranuccio, located 50 km south-east of Rome, and Visogliano, located 18 km north-west of Trieste, are part of a very short list of fossil human remains from Middle Pleistocene Europe and are among the oldest human remains on the Italian Peninsula. 
From the data obtained through X-ray μ-CT measurements performed at the TomoLab station of Elettra and at the Multidisciplinary Laboratory of the 'Abdus Salam' International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste (Italy), we found that the teeth of both sites share similarities with Neanderthals but they are distinct from modern humans. This study adds to an emerging picture of complex human evolution in Middle Pleistocene Eurasia.  The investigated fossil teeth show that Neanderthal dental features had evolved by around 450,000 years ago.

There has been much debate over the identities and relationships of Middle Pleistocene ancient humans in Eurasia. The discovery of Neanderthal-like teeth so early in the record adds support to the suggestion of an early divergence of the Neanderthal lineage from our own, around the Early-Middle Pleistocene transition. The teeth are also notably different from other teeth known from this time in Eurasia, suggesting that there may have been multiple human lineages populating the region at this time, adding to a growing list of evidence that the Middle Pleistocene was a time of more complex human evolution than previously recognized.
The remains from Fontana Ranuccio and Visogliano represent among the oldest human fossil remains testifying to a peopling phase of the Italian Peninsula. Our analyses of the tooth internal structural organization reveal a Neanderthal-like signature, also resembling the condition shown by the contemporary assemblage from Atapuerca Sima de los Huesos, indicating that an overall Neanderthal morphological dental template was preconfigured in Western Europe at least 430 to 450 ka ago. These teeth also add to a growing picture of a period of complex human evolution that we are only beginning to understand.

Figure 1.  Volume rendering of the Fontana Ranuccio (FR1R and FR2) and Visogliano (Vis. 1-Vis. 6) tooth specimens. The enamel is represented in blue while the dentine in yellow. All specimens were imaged by X-ray μCT at the Tomolab station of Elettra and at the Multidisciplinary Laboratory of the ICTP.     


Figure 2.  Enamel thickness cartographies of the LLI2 FR2 from Fontana Ranuccio in labial (A) and lingual (B) views compared with similar evidence from the North African late Early-early Middle Pleistocene Homo (NAH) from Tighenif, the Neanderthal KRD 90 (NEA) and an extant human incisor. For each specimen, topographic variation has been rendered by a tooth-specific thickness-related pseudo-colour scale ranging from thinner dark-blue to thicker red.


This research was conducted by the following research team:

Clément ZanolliI1María Martinón-Torres2,3, Federico Bernardini4,5, Giovanni Boschian6, Alfredo Coppa7, Diego Dreossi8, Lucia Mancini8Marina Martínez de Pinillos2,3Laura Martín-Francés2,9José María Bermúdez de Castro2,3, Carlo Tozzi6, Claudio Tuniz4,5,10, Roberto Macchiarelli11,12


Laboratoire AMIS, UMR 5288 CNRS, Université Toulouse III Paul Sabatier, Toulouse, France
Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), Burgos, Spain
Department of Anthropology, University College London (UCL), London, United Kingdom
Centro Fermi, Museo Storico della Fisica e Centro di Studi e Ricerche "Enrico Fermi", Rome, Italy 
Multidisciplinary Laboratory, The "Abdus Salam" International Centre for Theoretical Physics, Trieste, Italy
Dipartimento di Civiltà e Forme del Sapere, Università di Pisa, Pisa, Italy
Dipartimento di Biologia Ambientale, Università di Roma ‘Sapienza’, Rome, Italy 
Elettra Sincrotrone Trieste, Area Science Park, Trieste, Italy
Laboratoire PACEA, UMR 5199, Universit de Bordeaux, Bordeaux, France
10 Centre for Archaeological Science, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, Australia
11  Laboratoire HNHP, UMR 7194 CNRS, Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle (MNHN), Paris, France
12  Unité de Formation Géosciences, Université de Poitiers, Poitiers, France

Contact persons:

Clément Zanolli, email:


Clément Zanolli, María Martinón-Torres, Federico Bernardini, Giovanni Boschian, Alfredo Coppa, Diego Dreossi, Lucia Mancini, Marina Martínez de Pinillos, Laura Martín-Francés, José María Bermúdez de Castro, Carlo Tozzi, Claudio Tuniz, Roberto Macchiarelli, “The Middle Pleistocene (MIS 12) human dental remains from Fontana Ranuccio (Latium) and Visogliano (Friuli-Venezia Giulia), Italy. A comparative high resolution endostructural assessment”, PLoS ONE13(2018): e0189773, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0189773


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Last Updated on Monday, 12 November 2018 14:13