The “boy from Gran Dolina” was actually a girl

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About 800,000 years ago, in what is now Spain, cannibals of the species Homo antecessor devoured a child that anthropologists would later call “The Boy from Gran Dolina”. In fact, the child was a girl, according to analyzes of one of her teeth.

Homo antecessor is an ancient species whose fossil remains – 86 bone fragments corresponding to at least six individuals dated to around 860,000 years ago – were discovered in the mid-1990s in Atapuerca, Spain.

We know that Homo antecessor practiced anthropophagy. Several fragments of skeletons found indeed present marks of lithic tools suggesting that the bodies of the victims were “worked” in such a way as to be able to be consumed.

According to these analyzes, Homo antecessor regularly fed on rivals, mainly young children and adolescents. According to a study published in 2019, one possible explanation for this anthropophagia is that humans were easier to catch and more nutritious than other animals (more calories at lower cost).

The boy from Gran Dolina

Certain skeletal characteristics, such as the shape of the pelvis, the size of the browbone, and the strength of the bone where the muscles attach, may reveal clues about the sex of adult human relatives. However, approximately 75% of Gran Dolina’s remains belong to pre-teen children, which hampered researchers’ efforts to determine the sex of individuals.

Analyzing the teeth, however, can help. Dental crowns are indeed fully formed around the age of six, and since older children generally have at least some of their adult teeth, the analysis of dental characteristics can be particularly useful in paleoanthropology to estimate the sex of individuals. immature.

In a new study, researchers looked at the upper canines of two Gran Dolina individuals, designated H1 and H3. The first was around 13 at the time of his death and has long been presumed to be a boy. The second died around the age of 11, and so far we believed it was also a male. He was named “The Boy from Gran Dolina”.

Permanent canines of individuals from Gran Dolina. The upper row shows the jawbone of individual H3. The lower row shows views of the left maxillary canine belonging to individual H1. Credit: García-Campos C

H3 was a girl

Using high-resolution x-rays, the researchers were able to measure the tissue volume and area of ​​both teeth. These scans revealed variations between the teeth of H1 and H3 that the researchers identified as sexually dimorphic.

For example, H3’s canine had more surface enamel than that of H1. On the other hand, that of H1 had a higher crown with more dentin (dense bone tissue under the enamel).

However, a higher dentin content is a characteristic of male teeth, while the fact of developing more surface enamel is a female characteristic. So, according to these analyzes, and after comparisons with human teeth and other hominins, the scientists determined that H1 was indeed a boy. In contrast, H3 was probably a girl. According to them, she was between 9 and 11 years old when she was killed and eaten.

You will find the details of this work in the Journal of Anthropological Sciences.

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