We share a common ancestor with Neanderthals, but this ancient population remains largely a mystery.
Now, researchers have used new digital techniques to recreate the skull of the last common ancestor of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals for the first time.
It reveals how we split the human-Neanderthal lineage split about 300,000 years earlier than thought.
The skull also shows how our ancient forefathers had human cheekbones, but a Neanderthal-like bulge at the back of the skulls.
The ‘virtual fossil’ has been simulated by plotting a total of 797 ‘landmarks’ on fossilized skulls stretching over almost two million years of Homo history.
These skulls included a 1.6 million-year-old Homo erectus fossil, Neanderthal crania found in Europe and a 19th century skulls in Cambridge.
They then fed a digitally-scanned modern skull into the timeline, warping the skull to fit the landmarks as they shifted through history.
This allowed researchers to work out how the morphology of both species may have converged in the last common ancestor’s skull during the Middle Pleistocene.
This was an era dating from approximately 800,000 to 100,000 years ago.
The team generated three possible ancestral skull shapes that matched up with three different predicted split times between the two lineages.
They digitally rendered complete skulls and then compared them to the few original fossils and bone fragments of the Pleistocene age.
This enabled them to narrow down which virtual skull was the best fit for the ancestor we share with Neanderthals, and which timeframe was most likely for that last common ancestor to have existed.
Previous estimates based…