About 800,000 years ago in what is now Spain, cannibals devoured an early human child who became known as “The Boy of Gran Dolina.” But new analysis of these ancient remains has revealed a surprising twist: the child was a girl.
The child was a Homo antecessor, an early hominin species that lived in Europe between 1.2 million and 800,000 years ago. Discovered in 1994 in the Gran Dolina cave in northern Spain’s Atapuerca Mountains, the species is known primarily from fragments of bones and teeth, which hampered researchers’ efforts to determine the sex of H. antecessor individuals.
Recently, scientists tested a new technique, using a type of dental analysis that had successfully identified males and females in other early human species. They examined teeth from two Gran Dolina individuals: “H1” and “H3”. H1, whose remains defined the H. antecessor species, was about 13 years old at the time of death and was long presumed to be male. The second individual, H3 — The Boy of Gran Dolina — died at the age of 11 years old and was also thought to be male.
Microscopic analysis of the tooth structure for the new study revealed variations between H1’s and H3’s teeth that researchers identified as sexually dimorphic — differing in appearance between males and females. Based on comparisons with teeth from humans and other hominins, the scientists determined that H1 was male, but H3 was likely female.
Certain skeletal features, such as pelvis shape, size of the brow ridge and robustness of bone where muscles attach, can reveal clues about the sex of extinct human relatives. But these features only indicate the sex of adult skeletons, and about 75% of the Gran Dolina remains belong to pre-adolescent children. What’s more, those cave skeletons were highly fragmented, likely because they were cannibalized.
Teeth, however, are often well-preserved in ancient archaeological sites. Other researchers had previously analyzed canine teeth to determine sex in humans (with an accuracy up to 92.3%) in populations of Neanderthals from a site in Krapina, Croatia, and in earlier hominins from Spain’s Sima de los Huesos (“Pit of Bones”) site in Atapuerca.
Tooth crowns are fully formed by age 6, and since older children typically have at least some of their adult teeth, analysis of dental features “can be especially useful in paleoanthropology for estimating the sex of immature individuals,” and could be applied to the children’s remains from Gran Dolina, the scientists reported March 10 in the Journal of Anthropological Sciences.
The whole tooth
For the new study, the researchers looked at upper canines — the most sexually dimorphic teeth — from H1 and H3. Using high-resolution X-ray scans, they measured tissue volume and surface area of the two teeth,…