Neandertals return at German cave site

Researchers have excavated additional Neandertal fossils at a demolished cave site in western Germany where the first known Neandertal skeleton was unearthed in 1856. The new finds come from cave sediment that had been dug up and cast aside during the original dig, say Ralf W. Schmitz of the University of Tubingen in Germany and his colleagues.

Because scientists at first considered the 1856 Neandertal specimen to be unimportant, quarry workers destroyed the fossil-bearing cave several years after the discovery. Furthermore, no one recorded the cave’s exact location. Schmitz and a coworker used field notes from the original investigator to track down the cave’s likely site. Next to a partially standing cave wall, they found a pile of soil that had been thrown down perhaps 60 feet from an upper chamber of the cave.

These deposits have yielded 62 humanlike skeletal fragments, the scientists report in an upcoming Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Three cranial fragments fit into a missing part of the braincase of the 1856 Neandertal skeleton, they say.

Several other skull and lower-body pieces look distinctively Neandertal.

Radiocarbon analysis of two fossil fragments and the original Neandertal skeleton date all three to around 40,000 years old.

The cave sediment also yielded thousands of stone-tool remains. Some of these artifacts display toolmaking styles previously linked to European Neandertals, but others resemble implements associated with Stone Age Homo sapiens. This suggests that both groups may be represented in the site’s fossil remains, the researchers say.

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Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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