Ancient Slow Growth: Fossil Teeth Show Roots of Human Development

By Bower, S. | Science News, March 17, 2007 | Go to article overview

Ancient Slow Growth: Fossil Teeth Show Roots of Human Development


Bower, S., Science News


An extended period of childhood evolved people at least 160,000 years ago, according to a new analysis of a fossil child's teeth. That's the earliest evidence to date of a modern-human life history requiting intensive parental care and a wide range of early-life learning opportunities, the researchers say.

A lower jaw holding several teeth of a nearly 8-year-old early Homo sapiens child displayed tooth development comparable to that of same-age European kids today, report anthropologist Tanya M. Smith of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and her colleagues. They employed a new X-ray technique to peer inside teeth and count layers of enamel that form at regular intervals as teeth develop. Researchers previously had to cut sections out of fossil teeth to probe enamel formation.

Earlier measurements of the decay of radioactive uranium in the fossil, found at a Moroccan site called Jebel Irhoud in 1968, yielded the estimate of when the child lived. In an upcomimg Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Tanya Smith and her coworkers describe their analysis of the Jebel Irhoud child's teeth.

"The [new] study pushes back clear evidence for humanlike growth to 160,000 years ago," remarks anthropologist B. Holly Smith of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Using a similar X-ray method, another team reported in the Dec. 7, 2006 Nature that molar teeth of Neandertals dating to roughly 127,000 years ago developed much as those of modern humans do.

Tanya Smith's team examined an erupted molar, an incisor in the process of erupting, and a canine that had yet to erupt in the jaw of the Jebel Irhoud child. …

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