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Did our Last Ancestor live in Ceprano?


There are important developments on the proposed name for a species of the genus Homo known from a single fossilised skull cap from 400,000 years that was found in Ceprano (Province of Frosinone). A recent digital reconstruction of the skull points to the possibility that his may be the last common ancestor between Homo neanderthalensis and Homo Sapiens, our species. In fact, the skull is morphologically more similar to Homo heidelbergensis than to our own species.

The study, which has been published on the prestigious Scientific Reports, was coordinated by Professor Giorgio Manzi from the Department of Environmental Biology in collaboration with several other researchers and with the Office for Archaeology, Fine Arts and Landscape for the Metropolitan Area of Rome, the Province of Viterbo and Southern Etruria.

The skull, which was deformed by the sedimentation in which it was fossilized, was rebuilt using the original fragments and a large amount of plaster inserts to keep them together. The alteration of the original morphology has made it difficult for any further modification in the arrangement of the fragments, making the taxonomic interpretation of the Ceprano Skull unclear.

Now, accurate digital restoration, employed to safeguard the integrity of the find, via high-resolution computer micro-tomography at the "Abdus Salam" International Centre of Theoretical Physics in Trieste has allowed the plaster inserts to be removed (which could not be removed by mechanical or chemical means) and the virtual separation of fragments that make up the fossil record. These records were then repositioned with precision, correcting the defects produced by previous reconstructions.

Once the processes that led to the deformation of the skull were investigated, a new algorithm was applied to the reconstruction, which was specifically designed to set up the reverse process (retro-deformation), recovering the probable original morphology of the skull. This has produced an image of the Ceprano Skull that is far more similar to Homo heidelbergensis, which previous paleo-anthropological and paleo-geographic data indicate as the last common ancestor between Neanderthals and our species.

Fabio Di Vincenzo, the first author of the research project explained that "working on a find of such scientific importance was like facing an impossible challenge launched directly from the deepest past of our evolutionary history." Antonio Profico, another author, added: "the importance of this study is also in developing innovative digital restoration methods that can be used in this and other controversial cases of human evolution due to damages that skeletal remains may have experienced."

Fabio Di Vincenzo, Antonio Profico, Federico Bernardini, Vittorio Cerroni, Diego Dreossi, Stefan Schlager, Paola Zaio, Stefano Benazzi, Italo Biddittu, Mauro Rubini, Claudio Tuniz & Giorgio Manzi - Digital reconstruction of the Ceprano calvarium (Italy), and implications for its interpretation - Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 13974 25 Ottobre 2017  doi:10.1038/s41598-017-14437-2