Frequent inbreeding may have caused skeletal abnormalities in early humans
Early humans faced countless challenges as they fanned out of Africa: icy conditions, saber-tooth cats, and, according to a new study of ancient skeletons, an unusually high number of birth defects, both debilitating and relatively inconsequential. It’s unclear why such abnormalities seem to be so common, but scientists say one strong possibility is rampant inbreeding among small hunter-gatherer groups.
“This paper represents a valuable compilation,” says Vincenzo Formicola, an anthropologist at the University of Pisa in Italy who wasn’t involved in the new work. “Many cases reported in the list were unknown to me and, I assume, to many people working in the field.”
Many human fossils from the Pleistocene (roughly 2.5 million B.C.E. to 9700 B.C.E.) have unusual features. For example, femur bones with abnormal bowing have been found from China to the Czech Republic. The skull of a toddler found in the Qafzeh cave in Israel had a swollen braincase consistent with hydrocephalus, a condition in which fluid floods the skull. And a fossilized man in Liguria in Italy had a bowed right upper arm bone but a normal left one.