Reliability of cranial morphology in reconstructing Neanderthal phylogeny

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The usefulness of cranial morphology in reconstructing the phylogeny of closely related taxa is often questioned due to the possibility of convergence or parallelism and epigenetic response to the environment. However, it has been suggested that different cranial regions preserve phylogenetic information differentially. Some parts of the face and neurocranium are thought to be relatively developmentally flexible, and therefore to be subject to the epigenetic influence of the environment. Other parts are thought to be particularly responsive to selection for adaptation to local climate. The basicranium, on the other hand, and in particular the temporal bone, is thought to be largely genetically determined and has been argued to preserve a strong phylogenetic signal with little possibility of homoplasy. Here we test the hypotheses that cranial morphology is related to population history among recent humans, and that different cranial regions reflect population history and local climate differentially. Morphological distances among ten recent human populations were calculated from the face, vault and temporal bone using three-dimensional geometric morphometrics methods. The distance matrices obtained were then compared to neutral genetic distances and to climatic differences among the same or closely matched groups. Results indicated a stronger relationship of the shape of the vault and the temporal bone with neutral genetic distances, and a stronger association of facial shape with climate. Vault and temporal bone centroid sizes were associated with climate and particularly temperature; facial centroid size was associated with genetic distances.