A skeleton of a newborn Neanderthal, lost for almost 90 years, has turned up in a museum in France. The beautifully preserved fossil could lead to new insights into the evolution of human development and the relationship between modern humans and our long-extinct cousins.
The fossil - of a baby just four months old - is called 'Le Moustier 2' after the town in southwestern France where it was discovered in 1914. The infant's short life ended around 40,000 years ago.
"It's a very important fossil," says Bruno Maureille of the University of Bordeaux in France. Remains of only five other infant Neanderthals have ever been found.
After being scientifically described in 1921, Le Moustier 2 vanished. It was thought to have been taken to Paris for further study and lost. Then, in 1996, the fossil remains of a newborn Neanderthal turned up in the collections of the National Museum of Prehistory in Les Eyzies in the Dordogne, France. Maureille has now confirmed1that the skeleton is Le Moustier 2.
Because infants are too young to be significantly altered by environmental factors, such as nutrition and injury, their remains contain important clues to hominid development. "Their morphology is almost solely to do with their genes," says Maureille.
The rediscovery of the fossil has already solved one mystery. Infant Neanderthal leg bones at another museum in France, identified as coming from a burial site that already contained a skeleton, called La Ferrassie, turn out to belong to Le Moustier. The site was thought to represent the only example of a Neanderthal double burial - a conclusion now disproven.
The leg bones probably got mixed up when they were sent away for closer analysis in the 1920s, Maureille suggests. Reunited with its missing bits, Le Moustier 2 is one the most complete Neanderthal skeletons ever found. It lacks only shoulder blades and pubic bones.
Many important Neanderthal and early human fossils from Europe were lost during the past century, especially during the two world wars. Maureille suspects that Le Moustier may not be the last important fossil to be rediscovered.
Maureille, B. Lost Neanderthal neonate found. Nature, 419, 33 - 34, (2002).