The 800,000-Year-Old Gran Dolina Boy Just Became A Girl
History is peppered with stories of women who disguised themselves as men to fight in wars, to steal crowns and to topple empires. However, in this story we have an 800,000-year-old little boy who scientists have just revealed was actually a prepubescent female.
A team of scientists is today explaining to the world’s media that “Sexual dimorphism is an important part of the total variability observed in the fossil record […] because the scarcity of fossils hinders an accurate assessment of the intrapopulation variability in extinct groups and, as a consequence, the sex estimation of isolated specimens.” Again, this time in our words, the lack of early human fossils has traditionally made it really hard to distinguish between males and females.
Furthermore, when key bones like pelvis’ are missing from skeletons it becomes very difficult for researchers to discern whether a set of fossilized remains belonged to a female or male individual.
All this unclarity is now a thing of the past as a team of scientists has developed successful new methods of analyzing the chemical composition of ancient teeth to sort out the girls from the boys.
Permanent canines of Gran Dolina-TD6.2 included in the study. (Journal of Anthropological Sciences)
That’s Not A Weiner, Its A Flower!
In the early 1960s, a railway line was being built in the Atapuerca Mountains in the north of Spain. Deep trenches were cut through the rocks and sediments revealing the Gran Dolina archaeological site. The area was first excavated in 1964 when anthropogenic artifacts and human fossils from very early humans were discovered.
Then, in 1994 and 1995 over 80 bone fragments of five or six hominins were found and they dated to between 850,000 and 780,000 years. The archaeologists involved said this discovery was “at least 250,000 years older than any other hominid yet discovered in western Europe.“ What’s more, “about 25% of the bones have manipulation marks that suggest cannibalism,” but we’ll return to this fact later.
The game changing new research paper was published in the Journal of Anthropological Sciences by the Dental Anthropology Group at the Centro Nacional de Investigación de la Evolución Humana (CENIEH). According to the researchers one skeleton was discovered in level TD6 at Gran Dolina and belonged to the species Homo antecessor “H1” (from which the species was defined). The individual “H3” is better known to the world as the “Boy of Gran Dolina.” This new study looked at the two individuals’ canines and reveals how H1 was as believed, a young male individual, but fossil H3 was “probably a female.” What this means, in the words of Dr Cecilia García-Campos who led this research, is that the famous “Boy of Gran Dolina” was actually a girl!
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Homo antecessor , incomplete skull from "Gran Dolina" (ATD6-15 & ATD6-69), in Atapuerca, Spain (reconstruction) (Xvazquez / Pubic Domain )
Searching For Sexual Dimorphism 800,000-Years-Ago
Sexual dimorphism is the condition where two sexes of the same species exhibit different characteristics beyond the differences in their sexual organs and until now it has not been possible to distinguish the sexes of the two human skeletons found at Gran Dolina level TD6. This means it has not until now been possible to assess sexual dimorphism in the greater ancient population.
The primary reason queries into sexual dimorphism have been restricted, until now, is that the scientists have only had tiny fragments from skeletons. Adding to this, the vast majority of H. antecessor skeletons are from immature individuals who had not sexually matured yet. However, José María Bermúdez de Castro, Paleobiology Program Coordinator at the CENIEH and codirector of the Atapuerca site, concluded that the new study “opens up a new and highly reliable way to estimate sex through a non-destructive method.”
A report on Archaeology News Network says one of the most interesting results of this study has been the "verification that the remains of the individual H3 from Gran Dolina belonged to a girl aged between 9 and 11 who lived around 800,000 years ago.” Hence she has been renamed the “Girl of Gran Dolina”.
But we probably shouldn’t enquire to deeply as to how the girl met her demise. Why? Well, returning to the earlier statistic that “about 25% of the bones have manipulation marks that suggest cannibalism.” This means there exists about a 1 in 4 chance she was on the menu.
Top image: Girl of Gran Dolina, Individual H3 Source: Tom Björklund / CENIEH
By Ashley Cowie