Numerous studies have attempted to identify the presence of uniquely derived (autoapomorphic) Neandertal features. Here, we deal with the medial pterygoid tubercle (MTP), which is usually present on the internal face of the ascending ramus of Neandertal specimens. Our study stems from the identification of a hypertrophied tubercle in ATD6-96, an Early Pleistocene mandible recovered from the TD6 level of the Atapuerca-Gran Dolina site and attributed to Homo antecessor. Our review of the literature and study of numerous original fossil specimens and high quality replicas confirm that the MTP occurs at a high frequency in Neandertals (ca. 89%) and is also present in over half (ca. 55%) of the Middle Pleistocene Sima de los Huesos (SH) hominins. In contrast, it is generally absent or minimally developed in other extinct hominins, but can be found in variable frequencies (<ca. 25%) in Pleistocene and recent H. sapiens samples. The presence of this feature in ATD6-96 joins other traits shared by H. antecessor, the SH hominins and Neandertals. Since the TD6 hominins have been attributed either to MIS 21 or to MIS 25, it seems that a suite of assumed derived Neandertal features appeared in the Early Pleistocene, and they should be interpreted as synapomorphies shared among different taxa. We suggest that H. antecessor, the SH hominins and Neandertals shared a common ancestor in which these features appeared during the Early Pleistocene. The presence of the MTP in taxa other than H. neanderthalensis precludes this feature from being a Neandertal autapomorphy.
Keywords: Gran Dolina; Sima de los Huesos; hominin evolution; mandibular morphology; taxonomy.
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