After 150,000 Years in a Cave, a Neanderthal Skull Looks Like This

By Sarah Zhang on at

This is the Altamura Man. He’s old. In 1993, cave researchers stumbled across an odd formation in Italy: a skull that had essentially grown over time to become part of the cave, calcite budding from its features. Now, scientists have discovered that it could easily be 150,000 years old.

Experts have been touchy about whether the Altamura Man’s skeleton should be removed for study. But recently, researchers led by Giorgio Manzi at the Sapienza University got permission to take a small piece of his shoulder bone. Uranium–thorium analysis place his age between 128,000 and 187,000 years old. The Neanderthal had likely fallen into the hole and died of starvation all those years ago.

The scientists were also able to extract DNA from the bone—the oldest Neanderthal DNA ever collected, in fact. The next step is likely sequencing that genetic material, though that is much easier said than done. Because Neanderthal DNA is so similar to that of humans, a single particle of human skin could contaminate the results.

This ancient DNA could yield some answers to how hominids evolved, but it won’t give them up easily. [Journal of Human Evolution via Nature]

Top image: Redazione ResearchItaly