A fragment of a Neanderthal skull, dated to between 40,000 and 60,000 years has been recovered from the bottom of the North Sea, marking the first ever occasion such a find has been made, according to researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, in collaboration with the University of Leiden. According to isotopic data, this archaic human, believed to have been a young adult male, had an almost exclusively carnivorous diet, while analysis of the skull portion suggests he may have resembled other Neanderthals such as La Chapelle-aux-Saints and La Ferrassie 1, dated to between 50,000 and 60,000 years, the oldest age that has far been suggested for the so-called Zeeland Ridges Neanderthal.
The North Sea, as we’ll read later, has long attracted the attentions of archaeologists, who regard what they refer to as Doggerland as being a vast site of great importance, preserving a drowned landscape which once attracted animals and humans in large numbers.
The fragment of skull, which clearly exhibits a robust brow-ridge, typical of Neanderthals, was found by Luc Anthonis, described as a private fossil collector, as he was sieving through shells after a dredging operation, at Middeldiep, about 15 miles off the coast of Zeeland in the Netherlands. Indeed, according to the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, this is also the first known Dutch Neanderthal, although there have been past rumours of Neanderthal fossils having been obtained by private collectors after similar finds at sea.
According to Jean-Jacques Hublin, this location in the high latitudes was at the extreme northern limit of the Neanderthal range, and their survival instincts would have been under duress – however, if the individual was living prior to the onset of the last glaciation, I’m not sure the weather at 50-60 kya would have been so cold as to have challenged the Neanderthals to their very limit, who had already survived two previous ice ages. And although Professor Hublin suggests the North Sea Neanderthals as a marginal population, I get the impression that many Neanderthals – who inhabited a vast stretch of Eurasia from Portugal to at least as far as the Altai region of Siberia – were never populous, and groups remained largely isolated from one another.
No carbon dating has been performed on the specimen, because to obtain the required amount of collagen would have required the destruction of about half the skull fragment, and despite the fragmentary evidence on hand, researchers have determined that while alive, the Neanderthal had a benign tumour, an epidermoid cyst, which apparently is very rarely found in modern humans. By mapping this specimen of frontal skull onto recreations of the previously known Neanderthals mentioned above, it has been possible to create an image of what the researchers believe to have been a good match for the Zeeland Neanderthal.
Despite this being the first human fossil recovered from the North Sea – or indeed from any ocean in the world – many other fossils of extinct Ice Age fauna have been dredged up over the years, as have stone tools, reflecting a past era in the Pleistocene when sea levels were about 100m lower than the present day, and the current sea bed was dry land. this environment was capable of supporting a large suite of flora and fauna, in a geographical range extending from modern-day Britain, clear across to what we now know as the Netherlands and even parts of Scandinavia. Here’s a word from Professor Chris Stringer, of the Natural History Museum in London…
‘This is a very significant discovery,’ said Professor Chris Stringer, human origins expert at the Natural History Museum, who directs the AHOB project. ‘The skull fragment represents the first ancient human found from below the sea – who knows what else we may find down there!’
‘For most of the last half-a-million years, sea levels were significantly lower than today, and at times, substantial areas of the current North Sea were dry land,’ says Stringer. ‘There were extensive river systems with wide river valleys, lakes and floodplains and these areas were rich habitats for large herds of herbivores and the animals that preyed on them, including early humans.’
‘Isotope analyses of this North Sea Neanderthal match other specimens in suggesting a diet dominated by meat.’ Stringer adds, ‘Woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, horse, reindeer and other Pleistocene mammal fossils are brought ashore every year by the fishing industry and from other dredging operations, and some fishermen now concentrate on collecting fossils rather than fish!’
However, as he notes in his comments to BBC News, the exact context of the find is unknown, and opines that with the right submersible technology available, archaeologists in the future might be able to examine the sea floor in detail, and record findings in situ.
A paper describing the find, written by Jean-Jacques Hublin is slated to appear in the Journal of Human Evolution, under the title, ‘Out of the North Sea. The Zeeland Ridges Neandertal’,
On a final note, the Neanderthal skull fragment is on display at the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, from June 16th to September 27th 2009.
See also: Spectacular Discovery of First-ever Dutch Neanderthal, the First Fossil Hominin Ever Yielded by a Sub-marine Site (pdf) Max Planck Institute
N.B. Journal of Human Evolution – Volume 56, Issue 1, Pages 1-86 (January 2009) – free access to some interesting sounding papers, although I can’t find any indication as to when the Zeeland Neanderthal paper will appear.