Palaeontologists strike gold in nineteenth-century rubbish.
You wait the best part of a century for a lost Neanderthal skeleton to be rediscovered, and then two come along in a week.
Palaeontologists working in the German valley that gave Neanderthals their name have found the remains of human skeletons, their tools and the animals that lived alongside them1. The bones were dug up for the first time, and subsequently discarded, nearly 150 years ago. The finding follows the Neanderthal baby recently found in a French museum 90 years after its excavation2.
In 1856, quarry workers unearthed the first ever Neanderthal bones in a cave on the side of the Neander valley, near Düsseldorf. The larger bones were kept, but the rest of the cave's contents were thrown into the valley floor 20 metres below.
By the time the bones were recognized as early human, several weeks later, the cave had been quarried away and the other fragments buried.
Palaeontologist Fred Smith of the Loyola University of Chicago and his colleagues used historical records to work out where the cave's contents might have fallen.
After picking their spot, and digging down for four metres, they struck bone. One of the first fragments unearthed fitted onto the thigh bone of the original Neanderthal. "It's little short of miraculous," says Smith.
The team now has about 75 fragments. They have found pieces of the first skeleton's skull, plus remains from at least two previously unknown individuals.
Carbon dating reveals that the newly found Neanderthals lived during the Ice Age, about 40,000 years ago - around the same time as the first skeleton. Neanderthals are thought to have arrived in Europe about 120,000 years ago, and died out 90,000 years later.
But DNA from the new specimens hints that they might be more closely related to Neanderthals from eastern Europe than to their German neighbour. Too few skeletons have been analysed to be sure, says Smith, but it is possible that Neanderthals travelled long distances.
Smith's team also found stone tools, and bones of other animals from the same period. These are the most exciting aspect of the discovery, says archaeologist Clive Gamble of the University of Southampton, UK.
“The early history of human paleontology might have been very different Fred Smith , Loyola University”
The first Neanderthal "had always been a floating fossil - it lacked a context", says Gamble. The new evidence grounds him in the bigger picture of what we now know about Neanderthals.
If the tools had been found in 1856, Neanderthal man might have got a friendlier reception. Many people refused to believe that the bones were old - this was before Darwin's Origin of Species was published, after all. Some thought that the skeleton belonged to a Russian soldier killed in the Napoleonic wars.
"Those arguments would have been invalid before they'd been made," says Smith. "The early history of human palaeontology might have been very different."
Schmitz, R.W. et al. The Neanderthal-type site revisited: interdisciplinary investigations of skeletal remains from the Neander Valley, Germany. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, doi: 10.1073/pnas.192464099, (2002).
Maureille, B. et al. Lost Neanderthal neonate found. Nature, 33 - 34, (2002).