Neanderthal Skull

Neandertal Skull piece

Part of a Neanderthal man’s skull has been dredged up from the North Sea, in the first confirmed find of its kind. Scientists in Leiden (Netherlands) are showing this 60,000-year-old fragment from the front of a skull belonging to a young adult male.

Analysis of chemical "isotopes" in this fossil tell of a carnivorous diet, matching results from other Neanderthal specimens.

For most of the last half million years, sea levels were substantially lower than they are today. Large areas of the North Sea were, at times, dry land criss-crossed by river systems, with wide valleys, lakes and floodplains. These were rich habitats for large herds of ice age mammals such as horse, reindeer, woolly rhino and mammoth.

Their fossilized remains are brought ashore in large numbers each year by fishing trawlers and other dredging operations and Indeed, some of it dates to the Cromerian stage, between 866,000 and 478,000 years ago.

"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," Professor Stringer, a museum research leader, told BBC News. 

It had been "only a matter of time", he said, before a human fossil came to light.

Professor Stringer added: "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 (in the sea floor) where we can obtain the dating, associated materials and other information we would get if we were excavating on land."

Private collection

Neandertal ManNeanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) were our close evolutionary cousins and they appear in the fossil record some 400,000 years ago, but were not GQ models.

What they were, was physically powerful hunters that dominated a wide range spanning Britain and Iberia in the west, Israel in the south and Siberia in the east.

Our own species, Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa, and replaced the Neanderthals after entering Europe about 40,000 years ago — or so it is believed (facts and knowledge are a fluid thing).

This specimen was found among animal remains and other stone artifacts which were spotted by Luc Anthonis, a private fossil collector from Belgium, and dredged up 15km off the coast of the Netherlands in 2001.

"Even with this rather limited fragment of skull, it is possible to securely identify this as Neanderthal," Professor Hublin from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany told BBC News.

The thick bony ridge above the eyes, known as a supraorbital torus, is typical of the species, he said.

This fossil also bears a lesion caused by a benign tumour – an epidermoid cyst – of a type very rare in humans today.

The research links up with the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain 2 (AHOB 2) project, which aims to set Britain’s prehistory in a European context. Dutch archaeologist Wil Roebroeks, a collaborator on this study, is a member of the AHOB 2 research team.

Extreme ways

Dr Mike Richards, from the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, analyzed different forms, or isotopes, of the elements nitrogen and carbon in the fossilized bone. This showed the male ate a diet of mainly meat.

"High in the food chain, they must have been quite rare on the ground compared to other mammals, which explains their rarity to some degree," said Wil Roebroeks from the University of Leiden.

The results also suggest that in Gibraltar, on the southern coast of Iberia, some Neanderthals were eating and using marine resources, including dolphins, monk seals and mussels.

This bone was not carbon-dated because half the specimen would be destroyed in the process.

Professor Roebroeks told BBC News: "Dutch scientists – geologists and archaeologists alike – are hoping this find will convince governmental agencies that the Netherlands needs to invest much more in that… archive of Pleistocene sediments off our coast – and off the coast of Britain."

from BBC Science