Kerry Sheridan in PhysOrg:
The vicious fight for survival and power among disparate kingdoms and clans may have led some ancient people to evolve facial traits more quickly than others, a study said Thursday. New research on 17 skulls from a collection of 430,000-year-old remains found at the base of an underground shaft in Spain suggests that big jaws were the first prominent feature of these pre-Neandertals. Their large mandibles could gnash meat, open wide and be used like a tool or a third hand, helping them adapt to their eating needs in a harsh, cold environment. The fact that their skulls were compact, suggesting a small brain, indicates that the development of the larger brain seen in Neandertals came later in the evolutionary process, according to the study in the US journal Science. The group is the largest known discovery of early human remains, including 28 individuals, of whom nearly 7,000 bone fragments have been excavated since the Sima de los Huesos site in the Atapuerca Mountains was uncovered in 1984. They were young adults when they died, raising a host of questions that have yet to be answered by science: How did they die? How did they get to their resting place at the base of the shaft? Scientists say they may have been pitched—ceremoniously or not—into a pit by their conquerors.
Lead researcher Juan-Luis Arsuaga from the Complutense University of Madrid described their story in terms of “Game of Thrones,” a popular fantasy television series based on novels by George R.R. Martin. We think that a 'Game of Thrones' scenario probably describes hominin evolution in Eurasia and Africa in the Middle Pleistocene period,” he told reporters. “As in the famous serial, there was never a unified and uniform European Middle Pleistocene kingdom but a number of 'houses,' living in different regions and often competing for land,” he added. Some groupings were closely related, including members of the same extended family, but others were not.