Space & Innovation

'Neanderthal' Remains Actually Medieval Human

A few fragmentary bones thought to be the remains of Neanderthals actually belonged to medieval Italians.

A few fragmentary bones thought to be the remains of Neanderthals actually belonged to medieval Italians, new research finds.

The study is a reanalysis of a tooth, which was found in in a cave in northeastern Italy along with a finger bone and another tooth. Originally, researchers identified these scraps as belonging to Neanderthals, the early cousins of humans who went extinct about 30,000 years ago. Instead, the new study reveals the bones to belong to modern Homo sapiens.

There's no telling whom the original owner of the teeth and finger was, but the cave where they were discovered was both a hermitage, or dwelling place, and the site of a grisly medieval massacre. (8 Disturbing Archaeological Discoveries)

Photos: Are You Related to Neanderthals?

Mystery find The teeth and the bone were found in the San Bernardino Cave in the 1980s in a rock layer dating back to Neanderthal times, approximately 28,000 to 59,000 years ago. But location alone is not enough for a firm identification, said study researcher Stefano Benazzi, a physical anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. An analysis of the bones themselves is necessary, too. Earlier, researchers had conducted this analysis, but they lacked the high-tech tools available to scientists today.

"The taxonomical discrimination of the species was based mainly on the layer the human fossil was found instead of the morphological features," or shape and size of the bones, Benazzi told LiveScience.

The size and shape of the teeth were consistent with belonging to Homo sapiens, but their rock layer suggested Neanderthal. A look back at the excavations revealed murky geology - at some point in the late middle ages, a wall to seal off the cave had been built, potentially disturbing the rock layers and preventing the researchers from using the layers as proof of age.

Human or Neanderthal?

Benazzi and his colleagues took a direct approach, analyzing one of the teeth, a molar, found in the cave. (These analyses require the destruction of part of the bone, which is why they are often not done.)

Humans Vs. Neanderthals: How Did We Win?

First, they took a look at the shape of the tooth using micro-computed tomography (CT), a scanning method that allows researchers to create virtual 3D models of an object. They also sampled for mitochondrial DNA, a type of DNA passed down the maternal line. Next, they used radiocarbon dating to determine the age of the tooth. Finally, they analyzed molecular traces in the tooth to determine the individual's diet. (In Photos: New Human Ancestor Possibly Unearthed in Spanish Cave)

The results converged on one answer: This tooth was not Neanderthal. The shape was somewhat ambiguous, but suggestive of a Homo sapiens' tooth. The DNA looked far more human than Neanderthal. The date sealed the deal: Instead of being at least 30,000 years old, the tooth dated back to between A.D. 1420 and 1480.

The diet analysis revealed that the ratio of plants and meat eaten by the tooth's owner was consistent with the diet of a medieval Italian who ate millet, a plant not even introduced to Italy until 5,000 years ago or later.

"It's great that technology has advanced so far now that we can reassess these older finds," said Kristina Killgrove, a biological anthropologist at the University of West Florida who was not involved in the study. "Now we can use carbon-14 dating and ancient DNA and compare it to the Neanderthal genome."

Though the researchers did not chemically analyze the other tooth and finger bone, their sizes and close association with the molar suggest that they, too, are medieval in origin.

A grisly history The discovery of medieval bones highlights the cave's long history. It served as a hermitage in the 1400s, and was possibly inhabited by San Bernardino of Siena, a priest and missionary who spent time in the area. In 1510, during the War of the League of Cambrai, the cave was a site of a massacre of local people by mercenary troops. Some died of asphyxiation in the cave itself, where they had fled to seek refuge.

Whether the bones belong to one of those victims or to another medieval Italian is unknown, but the construction of a wall over the cave mouth in the Late Middle Ages likely pushed the bones into the deeper rock layers, where they were mistaken for Neanderthal remains. After the massacre, the site became a church.

Photos: Mysterious New Human Coexisted with Neanderthals

The re-categorization of the bones also shows that anthropology should not focus only on new finds, but also needs to look back at old discoveries, Benazzi said.

"We show that a lot of fossils discovered in the past, San Bernardino as an example, need to be reassessed," he said. That work is ongoing, he added, and his research group is working to analyze other remains found in other caves.

The findings will be reported in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Human Evolution.

Original article on LiveScience.

In Photos: Neanderthal Burials Uncovered In Photos: 'Alien' Skulls Reveal Odd, Ancient Tradition Top 10 Mysteries of the First Humans Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

A tooth thought to belong to a Neanderthal is actually from a medieval human.

Back in the Beginning

To put a human face on our ancestors, scientists from the Senckenberg Research Institute used sophisticated methods to form 27 model heads based on tiny bone fragments, teeth and skulls collected from across the globe. The heads are on display for the first time together at the Senckenberg Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, Germany. This model is Sahelanthropus tchadensis, also nicknamed "Toumai," who lived 6.8 million years ago. Parts of its jaw bone and teeth were found nine years ago in the Djurab desert in Chad. It's one of the oldest hominid specimens ever found.

Australopithecus afarensis

With each new discovery, paleoanthropologists have to rewrite the origins of man's ancestors, adding on new branches and tracking when species split. This model was fashioned from pieces of a skull and jaw found among the remains of 17 pre-humans (nine adults, three adolescents and five children) which were discovered in the Afar Region of Ethiopia in 1975. The ape-man species, Australopithecus afarensis, is believed to have lived 3.2 million years ago. Several more bones from this species have been found in Ethiopia, including the famed "Lucy," a nearly complete A. afarensis skeleton found in Hadar.

Australopithecus africanus

Meet "Mrs. Ples," the popular nickname for the most complete skull of an Australopithecus africanus, unearthed in Sterkfontein, South Africa in 1947. It is believed she lived 2.5 million years ago (although the sex of the fossil is not entirely certain). Crystals found on her skull suggest that she died after falling into a chalk pit, which was later filled with sediment. A. africanus has long puzzled scientists because of its massive jaws and teeth, but they now believe the species' skull design was optimal for cracking nuts and seeds.

Paranthropus aethiopicus

The skull of this male adult was found on the western shore of Lake Turkana in Kenya in 1985. The shape of the mouth indicates that he had a strong bite and could chew plants. He is believed to have lived in 2.5 million years ago and is classified as Paranthropus aethiopicus. Much is still unknown about this species because so few reamins of P. aethiopicus have been found.

Paranthropus boisei

Researchers shaped this skull of "Zinj," found in 1959. The adult male lived 1.8 million years ago in the Olduvai Gorge of Tanzania. His scientific name is Paranthropus boisei, though he was originally called Zinjanthropus boisei -- hence the nickname. First discovered by anthropologist Mary Leakey, the well-preserved cranium has a small brain cavity. He would have eaten seeds, plants and roots which he probably dug with sticks or bones.

Homo rudolfensis

This model of a sub-human species -- Homo rudolfensis -- was made from bone fragments found in Koobi Fora, Kenya, in 1972. The adult male is believed to have lived about 1.8 million years ago. He used stone tools and ate meat and plants. H. Rudolfensis' distinctive features include a flatter, broader face and broader postcanine teeth, with more complex crowns and roots. He is also recognized as having a larger cranium than his contemporaries.

Homo ergaster

The almost perfectly preserved skeleton of the "Turkana Boy" is one of the most spectacular discoveries in paleoanthropology. Judging from his anatomy, scientists believe this Homo ergaster was a tall youth about 13 to 15 years old. According to research, the boy died beside a shallow river delta, where he was covered by alluvial sediments. Comparing the shape of the skull and teeth, H. ergaster had a similiar head structure to the Asian Homo erectus.

Homo heidelbergensis

This adult male, Homo heidelbergensis, was discovered in in Sima de los Huesos, Spain in 1993. Judging by the skull and cranium, scientists believe he probably died from a massive infection that caused a facial deformation. The model, shown here, does not include the deformity. This species is believed to be an ancestor of Neanderthals, as seen in the shape of his face. "Miquelon," the nickname of "Atapuerca 5", lived about 500,000 to 350,000 years ago and fossils of this species have been found in Italy, France and Greece.

Homo neanderthalensis

The "Old Man of La Chapelle" was recreated from the skull and jaw of a Homo neanderthalensis male found near La Chapelle-aux-Saints, in France in 1908. He lived 56,000 years ago. His relatively old age, thought to be between 40 to 50 years old, indicates he was well looked after by a clan. The old man's skeleton indicates he suffered from a number of afflictions, including arthritis, and had numerous broken bones. Scientists at first did not realize the age and afflicted state of this specimen when he was first discovered. This led them to incorrectly theorize that male Neanderthals were hunched over when they walked.

Homo floresiensis

The skull and jaw of this female "hobbit" was found in Liang Bua, Flores, Indonesia, in 2003. She was about 1 meter tall (about 3'3") and lived about 18,000 years ago. The discovery of her species, Homo floresiensis, brought into question the belief that Homo sapiens was the only form of mankind for the past 30,000 years. Scientists are still debating whether Homo floresiensis was its own species, or merely a group of diseased modern humans. Evidence is mounting that these small beings were, in fact, a distinct human species.

Homo sapiens

Bones can only tell us so much. Experts often assume or make educated guesses to fill in the gaps in mankind's family tree, and to develop a sense what our ancestors may have looked like. Judging from skull and mandible fragments found in a cave in Israel in 1969, this young female Homo sapien lived between 100,000 and 90,000 years ago. Her bones indicate she was about 20 years old. Her shattered skull was found among the remains of 20 others in a shallow grave.