The Altamura Man: an Overview of Neanderthal

The Altamura Man found in Italy is an interesting Neanderthal specimen. It was discovered in 1993 in the karstic cave of Lamalunga nearby Altamura (Puglia). The remains were at the bottom of a 26 ft deep well. The archaeologists suggest the cause of the death presumably was the accidental fall of the individual into the well. The find is in a great degree of conservation, even though this Neanderthal body has been dated as 150000 years old. However due to the calcification of the remains, the only parts left that are visible are the skull and a portion of the shoulder. A team lead by Giorgio Manzi has been investigating the body and their research produces DNA data that has categorise the specimen amongst the most ancient Neanderthal remains known from DNA extraction and analysis. This was published in the Journal of Human Evolution in 2015.

As I have kicked off with such a cool example of a pre-historic individual find, I thought I might as well talk a bit about Neanderthals as a whole since we have given them little mention here over the year. Moreover, I think Neanderthals are one of those historical people – or pre-historic in this case -that we tend to take for granted. I think many people still have this sort of cartoony idea about them being dumb cavemen, who were all whipped out because our cleverer and better looking Homo Sapiens ancestors came about with their evolutionary mad dash. Well, that is just not fair at all.

I think we tend to forget and overlook the fact that Neanderthals had, with their more stocky bodies, larger cranial capacities than your average Sapiens, and we just as crafty as any of the other early humans species in this worlds. Neanderthals have left an astonishing record of stone tools. Some of the most abundant and impressive founds come from France, particularly the area of Dordogne. In fact it is one of this French sites, Le Moustier, that gives the name of the culture (or as fancy archaeologist call it – techno-complex) known as Mousterian. This is a collection of flint tools of Neanderthal craft that emerged during the Middle Paleolithic (from 160000 BP to 40000 BP). But this was not a culture and type of tool making technique restricted to France. Remains of Mousterian span from far east as Siberia, to the plains of Spain. In Spain one can find the site of Atapuerca, just in the north of Castile, which is another famous settlement and data-analysis centre for the investigation of the evolution and development of early human societies. So, in this regard, our Altamura Man is not so uncommon in terms of his location. Therefore, I hope you now understand that the real uniqueness behind this find has more to do with the state of preservation and its calcification due to the geological conditions of the cave. As well as his age, of course.

Another thing that a lot of people do not realise, is that there is still a lot of Neanderthal in our modern human bodies. It has now been commonly accepted by scientist that Neanderthals were, at least in part, assimilated into the Homo Sapiens group via reproduction and mating. In fact, recent studies suggest that the sexual interaction between the two species happened much earlier than previously thought: around 100000 years ago, before, or during the first waves of diaspora from the African continent. Therefore, Neanderthal DNA runs through our veins, and it is still found individuals in the far East alongside Denisovans genetics. We have come a long way to understand this species since the first discoveries of Neanderthal remains in the 19th century. One of the first finds was that of an infants skull in Engis (modern-day Belgium). However, there is still much unknown about their lives, legacy and extinction. The scientific community still holds strongly that the Neanderthals became extinct due to climatological changes they were unfit to over come – presumably a long-lasting period of extreme cold in which our distant forebears outlasted their cousins due to, perhaps, higher adaptability. We do know that Neanderthal society was a hunting-gathering type; and that is about it. From the analysis of their teeth and the abundant evidence of weapons of their making, we now know that they were in fact apex predators, hunting from deer to mammoths. However, very recent report coming from El Sidron, (Spain), suggest that at least this group of Neanderthals survived mostly on mushrooms and plant leftovers, like pine nuts. Their social groups were also much smaller and farther wide-spread than those of the Homo Sapiens. And from there on everything gets a bit vague. There are some claims to artistic expressions in Neanderthal culture, such as some shells with pain found in a site in Murcia (Spain), as well some scratched rock surfaces found in Gibraltar that could be understood as rock cave art. However, the studies are inconclusive due to the lack of consistent evidence.

In any case, what comes across from this general overview of Neanderthals is the need of further investigations due to our lack of understanding. There is a serious lack of researchers investigating the Stone Age, or certain parts of it in Europe and the rest of the world, due to the difficulties this supposes. However, I think the challenge should encourage us to get more involved. Everyday science and our methods and resources get a little bit better to allow us to understand the very distant past with more clarity. We need to keep on pursuing this knowledge so that specimens like the Altamura Man stop being a funny coincidence in our historical, and pre-historic record, and turn them into highlights of the early origins of our societies.

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