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Child tooth of Neanderthal discovered alongside tools originally thought to be unique to Homo sapiens

Child tooth of Neanderthal discovered alongside tools originally thought to be unique to Homo sapiens

  • Date10 February 2021

New analysis of a fossilised child’s tooth and stone tools from Shukbah Cave, an archaeological site located in the Hebron Hills, north of Jerusalem, reveals for the first time that Neanderthals used a special stone tool making technology thought to have been unique to modern humans only.

Neanderthal childs tooth Courtesy of the Natural History Museum, London

Courtesy of the Natural History Museum, London

Long held in a private collection, the newly analysed tooth of an approximately nine-year-old Neanderthal child marks the species southernmost known range.

Analysis of the associated archaeological assemblage, by Dr Jimbob Blinkhorn, formerly of Royal Holloway, University of London and now a researcher from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, suggests Neanderthals used a certain stone knapping technique to make tools called Nubian Levallois, previously thought to be restricted to Homo sapiens.

For more than a century, archaeological excavations in the Levant area have produced human fossils and stone tool assemblages that reveal landscapes inhabited by both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, making this region a potential mixing ground between populations.

Distinguishing these populations by stone tool assemblages alone is difficult, but one technology, the distinct Nubian Levallois method, has been argued to have been produced only by sapiens.

Although Homo sapiens and Neanderthals shared the use of a wide suite of stone tool technologies, Nubian Levallois technology has recently been argued to have been exclusively used by Homo sapiens. The argument has been made particularly in southwest Asia, where Nubian Levallois tools have been used to track human dispersals in the absence of fossils.

In the new study published in Scientific Reports, researchers from Royal Holloway, University of London, and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, teamed up with international partners, such as the Natural History Museum in London, to re-examine the fossil and archaeological record of Shukbah Cave.

The findings extend the southernmost known range of Neanderthals and suggest that our now-extinct relatives made use of a technology previously argued to be a trademark of modern humans.

This study marks the first time the lone human tooth from the site has been studied in detail, in combination with a major comparative study examining the stone tool assemblage.

Dr Jimbob Blinkhorn, lead author of the paper, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, said: “Sites where hominin fossils are directly associated with stone tool assemblages remain a rarity - but the study of both fossils and tools is critical for understanding hominin occupations of Shukbah Cave and the larger region.

"Illustrations of the stone tool collections from Shukbah hinted at the presence of Nubian Levallois technology, so we revisited the collections to investigate further.

“In the end, we identified many more artefacts produced using the Nubian Levallois methods than we had anticipated.

"This is the first time they've been found in direct association with Neanderthal fossils, which suggests we can't make a simple link between this technology and Homo sapiens."

Shukbah Cave was first excavated in the spring of 1928 by Dorothy Garrod, who reported a rich assemblage of animal bones and Mousterian-style stone tools cemented in breccia deposits, often concentrated in well-marked hearths.

She also identified a large, unique human molar. However, the specimen was kept in a private collection for most of the 20th century, prohibiting comparative studies using modern methods. The recent re-identification of the tooth at the Natural History Museum in London has led to new detailed work on the Shukbah collections. 

Dr. Clément Zanolli, from Université de Bordeaux, added: "Professor Garrod immediately saw how distinctive this tooth was. We've examined the size, shape and both the external and internal 3D structure of the tooth, and compared that to Holocene and Pleistocene Homo sapiens and Neanderthal specimens.

“This has enabled us to clearly characterise the tooth as belonging to an approximately 9 year old Neanderthal child. Shukbah marks the southernmost extent of the Neanderthal range known to date.”

Professor Simon Blockley, from the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, who led the Leverhulme project, said: "Southwest Asia is a dynamic region in terms of hominin demography, behaviour and environmental change, and may be particularly important to examine interactions between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens.

"This study highlights the geographic range of Neanderthal populations and their behavioural flexibility, but also issues a timely note of caution that there are no straightforward links between particular hominins and specific stone tool technologies."

Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, added: “Up to now, we have no direct evidence of a Neanderthal presence in Africa. However, the southerly location of Shukbah, only about 400 km from Cairo, should remind us that they may have even dispersed into Africa at times.”

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