Revealing the Tragic Story of Neanderthals: Unearthing an Enigmatic 150,000-Year-Old Fossil, Echoing Starvation and Mysterious Remains in a Sinkhole

It was a gruesome death that is the stuff of most people’s nightmares.

Now scientists have identified the unfortunate individual whose bones were found fused to the walls of a cave in Lamalunga, near Altamura, in southern Italy.

Using analysis of DNA extracted from the bones sticking out from the limestone rock, researchers have found he was a Neanderthal who fell down a sinkhole around 150,000 years ago.

Genetic analysis of the bones (above) of ‘Altamura Man’, found entombed in limestone in a cave in Altamura, Italy, has revealed that they belong to a Neanderthal who fell into the cave 128,000 to 187,000 years ago

Wedged in the narrow space and probably badly injured, he is thought to have starved to death.

Over the thousands of years that followed, the body decayed and the remaining bones gradually became incorporated into the stalactites left behind by water dribbling down the cave walls.

The DNA is the oldest to ever be extracted from a Neanderthal and the researchers now hope to further analyse the genetic information from the skeleton.

NEANDERTHAL MASTERCHEFS

They have a reputation as rather brutish creatures who chomped their way through huge hunks of meat, but it seems Neanderthals may actually have been the first masterchefs.

New research is suggesting that these extinct early humans may have used wild herbs to flavour their food.

Scientists have found traces of compounds found in camomile and yarrow in the hardened plaque of 50,000 year old Neanderthal teeth found in El Sidron, Spain.

At first researchers thought they might have been using these plants as a form of self-medication, but now new findings have presented a different theory.

Dr Sabrina Krief, a lecturer at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, and her colleagues suggests they may have used them to make food more palatable.

First discovered in 1993, the skeleton – nicknamed ‘Altamura Man’ – has provoked debate among anthropologists partly due to the difficulties in studying the skeleton as it had become part of the cave walls.

Examination of those bones that were exposed suggested they belonged to an adult male.

However, few could agree on whether the skeleton belonged to a Neanderthal or a modern human, or how long it had been down there.

But after taking a tiny part of the skeleton’s shoulder bone, researchers at the Sapienza University of Rome, University of Firenze and Newcastle University have been able to answer the questions.

They found mitochondrial DNA they extracted from the shoulder bone matched that of other Neanderthal skeletons.

Uranium-thorium dating techniques has also revealed that the skeleton appeared there between 172,000 and 130,000 years ago, during a period when ice sheets were expanding significantly from out of Antarctica and Greenland.

Giorgio Manzi, one of the palaeoanthropologists leading the study from the Sapienza University of Rome, said:  ‘Altamura Man is an incredible treasure for the Alta Murgia territory.

‘We hope that this fossil skeleton will become a key for a virtuous combination of scientific research, protection of our heritage and its promotion and development.’

Researchers have, up until now, held off from excavating the remains (above) as they believed it would cause irreparable damage to the skeleton but an early studies had suggested it had some Neanderthal features

The Lamalunga cave where the uniquely preserved Neanderthal skeleton was found is close to Altamura, Italy

Neanderthals are thought to have numbered up to 70,000 at their peak and lived in hunter gatherer societies

The researchers now hope that further analysis of the DNA might reveal new insights into Neanderthal evolution.

It is nearly 100,000 years older than other previously sequenced Neanderthal DNA.

The Altamura Neanderthal is thought to have come to rest in its unusual tomb after an adult male fell down a sinkhole into a limestone karst system.

Wedged in the narrow rocks, he were unable to move and probably starved to death. However, it also means no predators were able to reach his body.

Over time, his bones fell where had died, with some still lodged in the cave gap and were eventually absorbed into the walls of the cave itself.

Cave explorers then stumbled across the bones in 1993. Researchers eventually obtained permission to take a fragment of the shoulder bone in 2009 and have spent six years studying it.

Writing in the Journal of Human Evolution, the research team said: ‘Even though a number of Neanderthal traits can be seen—particularly in the face and in the occipital bone—there are features that distinguish this specimen from the more typical morphology of, such as the shape of the brow ridges, the relative dimension of the mastoids, and the general architecture of the cranial vault.

‘Overall, our results concur in indicating that it belongs to Homo neanderthalensis, with some phenetic peculiarities that appear consistent with a chronology ranging from 172 ± 15 ka to 130.1 ± 1.9 ka.

‘Thus, the skeleton from Altamura represents the most ancient Neanderthal from which endogenous DNA has ever been extracted.’

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