This is one of the loveliest fossils I’ve ever seen. They are the bones of a Neanderthal, found in a cave in southern Italy, and although they’ve been calcified by mineral-rich water trickling through the cave where they were found, it’s an almost complete skeleton, with the bones all intact.
That’s the grisly part of the story. This person apparently fell into a hole in the karst landscape and was trapped — he’s presumed to have starved to death there. There were no predators able to reach him, either, so his body decayed in place, his bones slumped into a pile, and the slowly accumulating limestone locked everything into a fused lump…until cave explorers shone a light into his tomb and saw his skull looking back at them in 1993.
Now we know how long his bones had laid there undiscovered: about 150,000 years. It’s a little late to inform his family of his fate, especially since his subspecies has been extinct for about 40,000 years.
At least we’re learning some things from his sad demise. The bones are literally fused into the cave wall, making extraction nearly impossible, and there are some hot arguments against even trying. But recently a small part of one shoulder blade was cut loose and analyzed.
The sample was dated, which is how we know how long ago this individual suffered his unfortunate end. Further, some attempts to extract DNA from the sample have been successful — it’s blown to bits, but enough intact fragments of mitochondrial DNA were found to compare with other specimens: he’s definitely Neanderthal, with some regional anatomical peculiarities, and his DNA is distinct from that of modern human and Denisovan populations. But he’s old, very old — keep in mind that the earlier sequenced Neanderthal DNA was about 50,000 years old. This fellow is separated by a distance in time from other Neanderthal DNA specimens that is twice as great as that separating us from the established Neanderthal genome.
Of course, that makes sequencing this genome even more interesting. Also technically far more difficult, maybe impossible.
But here’s what we know right now:
Overall, the results of our morphometric and the paleogenetic analyses concur in indicating that the skeleton from Altamura belongs to a Neanderthal. In addition, using U/Th dating we were able to provide the first range of dates for the specimen, between 130±2 ka and 172±15 ka.
Nevertheless, some features exhibited by the skeleton and observed in situ (on the cranium, in particular, as summarized in the Introduction) differ from the morphology known among the typical representatives of Homo neanderthalensis, while they appear consistent with the pre-Würmian age we obtained. Metrical variables show that the scapula-humeral joint is closer to the morphotype usually referred to the so-called “early Neanderthals,” including specimens such as those from Saccopastore, or Apidima. In addition, geometric morphometric analysis of the SGF from Altamura suggests some peculiarities of this small piece of bone, while (consistent with the mtDNA data) the same analysis strengthens the notion that the Neanderthal morphology was essentially present in the late Middle Pleistocene.
Finally, it is of great interest that mtDNA was sufficiently preserved to permit paleogenetic analysis. The results of the explorative approach used here have shown that the sample contained endogenous DNA (although highly fragmented) with a typical Neanderthal haplotype; moreover, there was no evidence of modern human contamination in the bone fragment, at least not at the mtDNA level. For these reasons, the Altamura skeleton should be considered a good candidate for more innovative genomic analyses, like capture approaches or ultra-deep shotgun sequencing, especially when we consider that Altamura represents the most ancient Neanderthal from which endogenous DNA has been retrieved so far.
Lari M, Di Vincenzo F, Borsato A, Ghirotto S, Micheli M, Balsamo C, Collina C, De Bellis G, Frisia S, Giacobini G, Gigli E, Hellstrom JC, Lannino A, Modi A, Pietrelli A, Pilli E, Profico A, Ramirez O, Rizzi E, Vai S, Venturo D, Piperno M, Lalueza-Fox C, Barbujani G, Caramelli D, Manzi G (2015) The Neanderthal in the karst: First dating, morphometric, and paleogenetic data on the fossil skeleton from Altamura (Italy). J Hum Evol pii: S0047-2484(15)00026-3. doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2015.02.007