Institute of Archaeology


Neanderthal teeth from La Cotte de St Brelade, Jersey hint at interbreeding with modern humans

1 February 2021

Simon Parfitt and Matthew Pope (UCL Institute of Archaeology) have contributed to a collaborative study of Neanderthal teeth which exhibit features hinting at interbreeding with modern humans.

Neanderthal teeth from La Cotte de St Brelade (Credit Société Jersiaise Photographic Archive)

The 13 Neanderthal teeth, discovered at La Cotte de St Brelade, Jersey, in 1910 and 1911 during excavations run by the Société Jersiaise, were preserved on a small granite ledge within the cave. The teeth were previously recorded as belonging to a single Neanderthal individual.

However, this new research, undertaken by experts from the Natural History Museum, the University of Kent, and four other organisations as well as the UCL Institute of Archaeology, found that the teeth were from at least two adult individuals who shared the same distinctive features, suggesting traits prevalent in their population.  While all the teeth have Neanderthal characteristics, several of the teeth lack features normally found in these ancient humans, and certain aspects of their shape are typical of modern humans.

Excavations continued at La Cotte de St Brelade until 1920 and recovered over 20,000 stone tools assigned to the Middle Palaeolithic, a technology associated with the Neanderthals in Europe. Recent dating work funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) on nearby cave deposits suggested a probable age of less than 48,000 years for the teeth. This suggests they could have represented some of the youngest Neanderthal remains known (the Neanderthals are believed to have disappeared about 40,000 years ago).

Research Leader, Chris Stringer, Natural History Museum and Honorary Visiting Professor, UCL said:

Given that modern humans overlapped with Neanderthals in some parts of Europe after 45,000 years ago, the unusual features of these La Cotte individuals suggest that they could have had a dual Neanderthal-modern human ancestry. This idea of a hybrid population could be tested by the recovery of ancient DNA from the teeth, something that is now under investigation."

Renewed excavations at the site, funded by Jersey Heritage, began in 2019. Matthew Pope, who is leading the excavations for the UCL Institute of Archaeology, said:

This work offers us a glimpse of a new and intriguing population of Neanderthal people and opens the door to a new phase of discovery at the site. We will now work with Jersey Heritage to recover new finds and fossils from La Cotte de St Brelade, undertake a new programme analysis with our scientific colleagues, and put in place engineering to protect this very vulnerable site for the future. It will be a mammoth project and one to watch for those fascinated by our closest evolutionary relatives."

The teeth are now on permanent display at Jersey Museum & Art Gallery. The microtomographic scans (3D x-rays) of all the La Cotte de St. Brelade fossil hominin specimens are publicly available on The Human Fossil Record, an online archive of digital media and information about the fossil record of humans.

The study was published recently in the Journal of Human Evolution

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