An 80,000-year-old Neanderthal tooth discovered on the floor of modern-day Poland’s Stajnia Cave is shedding light on our ancient ancestors’ secrets. Viable mitochondrial DNA locked inside the molar has been analysed for the first time.
Dubbed S5000, the Neanderthal molar tooth was recovered by archaeologists along with a variety of stone instruments and animal bones.
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The Stajnia S5000 molar is truly an exceptional find that sheds light on the debate over the wide distribution of the Micoquian artefacts
Dr Andrea Picin
The discoveries have all been dated to between 82,000 and 71,000 years ago.
The timeframe coincides with the era of the Micoquian culture, which stretched from Poland to the shores of the Caspian Sea.
Archaeology expert Dr Andrea Picin, a Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology researcher and lead author of the research, is amazed by the find.
She said: “The Stajnia S5000 molar is truly an exceptional find that sheds light on the debate over the wide distribution of the Micoquian artefacts.”
Dr Stefano Benazzi, a paleoanthropologist at Bologna University and co-author, is convinced the molar reveals much about our ancestors.
He said: “The morphology of the tooth is typical of Neanderthal.
“The worn condition of the crown suggests that it belonged to an adult.”
Detailed analysis of the S5000 confirmed the tooth dates to the MIS 5a period, making it the oldest Neanderthal fossil ever found in Europe.
The landscape of this area is now known to have undergone a dramatic transformation during this period, called the Middle Palaeolithic.
The world was then in the grip of an ice age known as the Last Glacial Period.
The Neanderthal habitats of northwestern and central Europe rapidly transformed from lush forests to freezing steppes.
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And although woolly mammoths and reindeer thrived in these Arctic-like conditions they proved a real challenge for Neanderthals.
The researchers wrote: “The molecular age of approximately 80,000 years places the tooth from Stajnia Cave in this important period of Neanderthal history when the environment was characterised by extreme seasonality and some groups dispersed eastwards to Central Asia.”
Dr Wioletta Nowaczewska from Wroclaw University and Dr Adam Nadachowski from the Polish Academy of Sciences, fellow co-authors, highlighted the significance of the discovery.
They said: “We were thrilled when the genetic analysis revealed that the tooth was at least 80,000 years old.
“Fossils of this age are very difficult to find and, generally, DNA is not well preserved.”
“At the beginning, we thought that the tooth was younger since it was found in an upper layer.
“We were aware that Stajnia Cave is a complex site, and post-depositional frost disturbance mixed artefacts between layers. We are happily surprised by the result.”
Dr Picin added: “Poland, located at the crossroad between the Western European Plains and the Urals, is a key region in understanding these migrations and for solving questions about the adaptability and biology of Neanderthals in periglacial habitat.”
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