Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Neanderthals old and new

Way back in the summer of 2003, Firstborn and I did some volunteer work helping to dig for Neanderthal remains in a cave in the Murcia district, Southern Spain. A single Neanderthal tooth that my daughter spotted was the most exciting thing that the hard work of 15 or so people produced during an entire week. There was also a femur head (the “ball” of the hip joint), but it was impossible to tell whether it was hominid or perhaps from a large mammal such as a deer. See my book The birds, the bees and the platypuses (pp77-80) for a more detailed account of our Neanderthal adventures.

I never went back to the cave and lost contact with the research team in the following years. Imagine my surprise then, as I researched an article on modern (genomic, imaging, etc.) methods of research into Neanderthals and found out that in the years 2005-2008, the very cutting where we had scraped around for a week had yielded skeletons with articulated parts of three Neanderthal individuals, found in an arrangement that suggests they may have been buried ritually (with their hands close to their heads, as has also been observed in other Neanderthal graves).

Given the slow progress of the excavation, which is carried out only during the summer months, we must have been less than a metre away from those skeletons. While there have been similar finds further north in Europe, this burial site is a first for the Mediterranean coast, and it may allow comparative studies re. how Neanderthals lived under different climate conditions. Sadly, however, attempts to retrieve DNA from the Spanish Neanderthals have remained fruitless. It appears that the genetic material doesn’t survive very well in the hot climate of southern Spain.

The discovery and excavation of the three skeletons is described in great detail in

M. J. Walker et al., Quaternary International 2011 (in press), doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2011.03.034

As the cleaning and detailed characterisation of each skeleton proceeds, individual studies will also become available. The first one appeared in September in PNAS:

M. J. Walker et al., Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 2011, 108, 10087

Oh, and my news feature on how genomics, imaging etc. is revolutionising palaeoanthropology is out in Current Biology today:

Virtual Neanderthals
Current Biology, Volume 21, Issue 21, R871-R873, 8 November 2011
doi:10.1016/j.cub.2011.10.031

Abstract and FREE access to PDF file

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