the New Scientist.com By Hazel Muir
04 September 02
A long-lost Neanderthal baby fossil has turned up in a museum in France
after disappearing for nearly 90 years. The baby was under four months
old when it died and its bones could shed some light on Neanderthals'
In 1914, the remains were discovered in a rock shelter at Le Moustier,
which is near Les Eyzies de Tayac in southwest France. The baby was labeled
"Le Moustier 2". Later studies showed that its burial site is
about 40,000 years old.
In the early 1900s, the finding sparked little interest. "During
the first half of the 20th century, scientists were not at all interested
in immature fossils," says Bruno Maureille, the anthropologist at
Bordeaux University who rediscovered the fossil.
The bones were thought to have been mislaid in Paris. But in fact, they
have been in a museum in Les Eyzies for nearly 90 years. In a survey of
the museum's collections, Maureille spotted bones that he reckoned must
be the skeleton of Le Moustier 2.
He realised this because some of the bones were still encased in sediments
with similar composition to those deposited by the Vézère
River, which flows past the Le Moustier cliff. And the animal remains
in the sediments were identical to those in samples from the rock shelter
where the baby was found.
The skeleton is now complete apart from the shoulder blades and the pubic
bone. Maureille says it is beautifully preserved, and could provide all
kinds of new information about how Neanderthal skeletons grew and matured.
"We know almost nothing about neonate Neanderthals," he adds.
It will also shed light on the genetic makeup of Neanderthals. While adult
skeletons are shaped by all kinds of things - the environment, physical
activity and disease - the baby's skeleton is almost purely a product
of its genes.
Journal reference: Nature (vol 419, p 33) 19:00 04 September 02
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