Do Mystery Teeth Point to a New Human Species?

Feb 17, 2015, by Dr. Becky Coats

The human teeth were discovered in 1976, but it was only recently that researchers in Spain decided to analyze them in detail. The teeth, which date from 60-120,000 years ago, have a unique combination of features that do not match any known hominid (humanoid) species. They have a mixture of primitive characteristics and advanced ones. Some believe this is the result of crossbreeding, while others think it indicates the teeth come from an undiscovered hominid species.

A Diverse Population

New Species of HumanAll humans alive today belong to the same species, Homo sapiens. But things were different 100,000 years ago. At that time, there were many different types of humans, belonging to different subspecies. Currently, we believe there were at least five such species at the time. Modern humans had begun to thrive in Africa, but Neanderthals were flourishing in Europe. Denisovians lived in Asia, what some people have termed “hobbits” lived in Indonesia, and there was another species we don’t know much about that lived in Asia with the Denisovians.

So it might not be surprising that these new teeth would indicate a sixth species living at the same time as well.

Mapping the Teeth

Spanish researchers have come across this possibility using a detailed analysis of the teeth. They used a research program that compared the features of these teeth with those of 5000 other hominid teeth samples. It turns out that each hominid species has distinct .features and comparing the specific shape and size of the crowns, cusps, grooves, and roots would reveal its identity. Kind of like a very advanced, very detailed form of forensic dentistry.

Researchers described the features of the tooth as a “landscape in miniature,” whose features could be very distinctive of a species. The features on these teeth most definitely didn’t match those of modern humans. Some of the features matched that of the human ancestor Homo erectus. Some of the features, though, matched that of modern human’s contemporary Homo neanderthalensis.

A New Species?

The researchers who described these fossils are reluctant to say that the fossils represent a new species. They say that it’s likely the teeth belong to a species that doesn’t have a lot of fossils yet, possibly even the Denisovians. Currently, all our knowledge of Denisovians is based on two teeth and a finger bone.

Others are prepared to call the new teeth a new species. They want to see the area as a rich melting pot of a wide variety of hominid species.

Fortunately, this mystery is soluble. As more fossils are found in this area, they will likely reveal a more complete picture of the populations that lived there. And as we get new tools, we will likely discover new ways to explore the evidence we already have to solve this perplexing toothy mystery.

If you have your own toothy mystery that you need help with, please call (817) 481-6888 for an appointment with a Grapevine dentist at Grapevine Dental Care today.