WASHINGTON - A stunningly well-preserved skull from 1.8 million years ago offers new evidence that early man was a single species with a vast array of different looks, researchers said Thursday.
With a tiny brain about a third the size of a modern human's, protruding brows and jutting jaws like an ape, the skull was found in the remains of a medieval hilltop city in Dmanisi, Georgia, said the study in the journal Science.
It is one of five early human skulls - four of which have jaws - found so far at the site, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the capital Tbilisi, along with stone tools that hint at butchery and the bones of big, saber-toothed cats.
Lead researcher David Lordkipanidze, director of the Georgian National Museum, described the group as "the richest and most complete collection of indisputable early Homo remains from any one site."
The skulls vary so much in appearance that under other circumstances, they might have been considered different species, said co-author Christoph Zollikofer of the University of Zurich.
"Yet we know that these individuals came from the same location and the same geological time, so they could, in principle, represent a single population of a single species," he said.
The researchers compared the variation in characteristics of the skulls and found that while their jaw, brow and skull shapes were distinct, their traits were all within the range of what could be expected among members of the same species.
"The five Dmanisi individuals are conspicuously different from each other, but not more different than any five modern human individuals, or five chimpanzee individuals, from a given population," said Zollikofer.
"We conclude that diversity within a species is the rule rather than the exception."