Neanderthal Skull Fragment Dredged from North Sea

The species was our close "evolutionary cousin"

By on June 16th, 2009 11:11 GMT
A 60,000-year-old fossilized bone fragment, belonging to a young Neanderthal adult, has been dredged up from the bottom of the North Sea, researchers from the Netherlands have recently disclosed to the public. After a careful analysis of the isotopes found on and inside the bone, the scientists from Leiden concluded that the individual was carnivorous, and that all other readings harvested from the sample closely matched those obtained from other established Neanderthal specimens. This is the first discovery of its kind, but experts believe that more may be on their way.

Professor Chris Stringer, a research leader at the Natural History Museum of London, has told the BBC News that a large number of fishermen in the area around the North Sea now seem to be concentrating their efforts on fishing out long-forgotten relics, rather than on catching fish. And for good reason, he adds. “There were mammoth fossils collected off the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts 150 years ago, so we've known for some time there was material down there that was of this age, or even older,” he tells the British news agency.

Animals such as horses, reindeer, woolly rhinos and mammoths in the distant past roamed the surface that is now covered by the North Sea. The area was not flooded at the time, and the landscape was, according to the geologist, a genuine paradise. Large valleys and rivers occupied the region, and they offered the perfect habitat for a large number of carnivorous and herbivorous species alike. Naturally, where large concentrations of animals could be found, humans existed as well, as they were hunter-gatherers at the time, mostly living off hunted animals.

“The key thing for the future is getting this material in a better context. It would be great if we could get the technology one day to go down and search [the sea floor] where we can obtain the dating, associated materials and other information we would get if we were excavating on land,” Stringer adds for the same news outlet. He shares that Neanderthals stretch back in recorded fins for more than 400,000 years, and that they are among our closest evolutionary relatives. The complexity of their construction has been made obvious over the years, as archaeologists uncovered more and more fossils.

“Even with this rather limited fragment of skull, it is possible to securely identify this as Neanderthal,” Professor Jean-Jacques Hublin tells the BBC. The expert was in charge of analyzing the specimen that was extracted from the North Sea. The analysis took place at his lab, at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

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Over the years, sufficient Neanderthal fossils have given anthropologists a fairly good idea of how Homo sapiens neanderthalensis must have looked like
   Over the years, sufficient Neanderthal fossils have given anthropologists a fairly good idea of how Homo sapiens neanderthalensis must have looked like