The study of dental morphology by means of geometric morphometric methods allows for a detailed and quantitative comparison of hominin species that is useful for taxonomic assignment and phylogenetic reconstruction. Upper second and third molars have been studied in a comprehensive sample of Plio- and Pleistocene hominins from African, Asian and European sites in order to complete our analysis of the upper postcanine dentition. Intraspecific variation in these two molars is high, but some interspecific trends can be identified. Both molars exhibit a strong reduction of the distal cusps in recent hominin species, namely European Homo heidelbergensis, Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens, but this reduction shows specific patterns and proportions in the three groups. Second molars tend to show four well developed cusps in earlier hominin species and their morphology is only marginally affected by allometric effects. Third molars can be incipiently reduced in earlier species and they evince a significant allometric component, identified both inter- and intraspecifically. European Middle Pleistocene fossils from Sima de los Huesos (SH) show a very strong reduction of these two molars, even more marked than the reduction observed in Neanderthals and in modern human populations. The highly derived shape of SH molars points to an early acquisition of typical Neanderthal dental traits by pre-Neanderthal populations and to a deviation of this population from mean morphologies of other European Middle Pleistocene groups.
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