About 150,000 years ago, one of our ancestors fell deep into a well. Now, he’s making science history and breaking the record for the oldest Neanderthal to have his DNA extracted by researchers. Scientists in southern Italy have known about the Altamura Man since 1993 when a pair of unsuspecting spelunkers spotted his skull staring back at them in Lamalunga cave, but it took more than two decades to get around to analyzing his remains.
“The Altamura man represents the most complete skeleton of a single non-modern human ever found,” study co-author Fabio Di Vincenzo, a paleoanthropologist at Sapienza University of Rome, told reporters at Live Science. “Almost all the bony elements are preserved and undamaged.”
The Altamura Man’s intact skull and piles of ancient bones were wedged deep into stalactites and globules that had been deposited by water dripping for tens of thousands of years. Researchers were fearful they would shatter in the extraction process, so they left them deep in the cave. Analysis of calcite buried in the Neanderthal’s eye sockets, nose bone, and upper jaw have shown the bones to be between 128,000 and 187,000 years old.
Recently, researchers took a chip from the Altamura Man’s shoulder blade, confirming that he was a Homo neanderthalensis.
The rest of his body remains a forever caveman, “in the corner of a small cavity situated between the ground and the back wall.” But he will not be forgotten. Scientists hope they will be able to sequence his DNA and uncover more answers about the evolution of all hominids. The Altamura Man could yield the most complete picture yet of Neanderthal life to date.
“We have a nearly complete human fossil skeleton to describe and study in detail. It is a dream,” Di Vincenzo said. “His morphology offers a rare glimpse on the earliest phase of the evolutionary history of Neanderthals and on one of the most crucial events in human evolution. He can help us better understand when — and, in particular, how — Neanderthals evolved.”
Scientists have already started piecing together clues. Using photogrammetry and laser scanning of the encrusted skeleton, combined with data from the DNA analysis, researchers were able to create a hyper-realistic model of his face and body. The model offered new insights into the skeleton. It emerged that while the body has the typical Neanderthal features, the skull is more peculiar, showing a morphological bridge between the previous human species such as Homo hedelbergensis and the Neanderthals.
Sources: CNN, Live Science, Daily Mail UK, NewsYac