Archaeologists Were Exploring A Cave In Poland When They Discovered A 100,000-Year-Old Secret

A researcher is sifting through a rich cache of prehistoric animal bones discovered beneath the floor of Ciemna Cave in Poland. Then, a couple of tiny fragments – ones later confirmed to be from the fingers of a Neanderthal child – catch the eye. And further analysis would ultimately reveal the shocking truth about how the bones had ended up deep inside the cave.

But first things first: who were the Neanderthals? Well, they were, in fact, a type of human – near relations of our own species, Homo sapiens. And Neanderthals are thought to have lived from more than 400,000 years in the past right up until they became extinct around 30,000 years ago.

We first became aware of Neanderthals in the mid-19th century. In 1856 workers were quarrying for limestone in a Neander Valley cave near the German city of Dusseldorf. And, here, the quarrymen came across some strange bone fragments: 16 in total.

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These fragments included a piece of skull, five ribs and part of a pelvis. And while the owner of the cave, one Wilhelm Beckershoff, reckoned that the bones had probably belonged to a bear, he nevertheless handed them on to Johann Fuhlrott – a teacher and fossil enthusiast.

Next, Fuhlrott – with the help of other scientists – recognized the bones as having belonged to a type of human. And the name “Neanderthal” was then ascribed to the fragments, in tribute to the valley where they had been discovered. Initially, however, many other researchers were skeptical of the idea that the bones were actually evidence of prehistoric man.

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As time passed and fossil evidence of the Neanderthals increased, though, Fuhlrott’s conclusions were accepted. But even so, it’s fair to say that the Neanderthals have been somewhat maligned until relatively recently. Popular culture tended to view these early humans as crudely primitive and far inferior to Homo sapiens.

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Yet research has gone on to paint a different picture of our prehistoric relatives. For instance, we now know that the Neanderthals utilized stone tools not unlike those employed by other early humans. They knew how to deal with fire, too, and they also buried the deceased members of their kind.

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Later Neanderthal sites have even seemingly produced proof that these archaic humans progressed from fashioning stone tools to making implements from antler and bone. There is also some suggestion – although it is still considered controversial – that Neanderthals may have created what we can recognize as art. And the most compelling evidence for this theory comes from Spain.

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There, archaeologists have found wall paintings that are at least 65,000 years old in three caves dotted across the country. What this means is that the paintings appear to originate from about 20,000 years before the arrival of Homo sapiens in Spain. And this in turn suggests that the only early humans who could have made them were Neanderthals. Fascinatingly, the paintings include handprints and markings of red dots.

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The Neanderthals are thought to have been efficient hunters, too. Indeed, they were capable of tracking and killing some of the truly massive beasts, including mammoths, that lived in Europe at the time. And the discovery of the finger bones in the Polish cave is also suggestive of the other fearsome animals that lived around the Neanderthals in Europe – but we’ll come back to that.

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As for their origins, Neanderthals likely emerged in what is now Poland and the rest of Europe about 300,000 years ago. That’s according to Professor Pawe? Valde-Nowak of the Jagiellonian University’s Institute of Archeology in Kraków. Professor Valde-Nowak explained to the website Science in Poland that Neanderthal stone tools dating back to more than 200,000 years ago have been unearthed around the Vistula, Poland’s lengthiest river.

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And every new discovery paints a clearer image of the Neanderthals. This is certainly the case when it comes to the finger bones found in Ciemna Cave, which is located in the Ojców National Park. At first, though, the tiny human fragments weren’t recognized for what they are.

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It was only in 2018, after detailed examination, that scientists realized that the remains were in fact phalanges – the bones that make up the fingers and toes of the majority of vertebrates. And two anthropologists – Professor Erik Trinkaus from Washington University in St. Louis and Dr. Anita Szczepanek of the Jagiellonian University – have claimed that these aren’t just any old phalanges, either.

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These bones belonged, it seems, to a Neanderthal child, and they are thought to be around an astonishing 115,000 years old. Astonishing indeed. You see, given that the most ancient human fragments ever previously found in Poland were dated as being no more than 52,000 years old, the partial remains from the child would now be considered the oldest by a long chalk.

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Less than half an inch long, the bones are actually too fragile to take samples from for DNA analysis. But researchers are confident about the age of their find. Speaking to Science in Poland, Professor Valde-Nowak quashed any suspicions concerning the oldness of the two phalanges.

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“[We] have no doubts that [the phalanges] are Neanderthal remains, because they come from a very deep layer of the cave, a few meters below the present surface,” Professor Valde-Nowak said. “This layer also contains typical stone tools used by the Neanderthal.”

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But while the age of the Neanderthal child’s bones is amazing in its own right, how they found their way to the floor of this cave is just as mind-boggling. Analysis has shown, you see, that the phalanges have a particular type of permeable surface that is pitted with scores of small holes.

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And Professor Valde-Nowak explained to Science in Poland what the appearance of the bones means. “Analyses show that this is the result of [them] passing through the digestive system of a large bird. This is the first such known example from the Ice Age,” he said.

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We do not know whether the large bird hunted the child and killed it, or if the child had already died and the bird then scavenged its body. It’s also unclear whether the cave was occupied when either scenario happened, since the Neanderthals may only have used it at certain times of year.

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And while it may seem that we have little connection with the youngster who was hunted or whose body was scavenged 115,000 years ago, it’s worth remembering that the majority of people of European and Asian descent have some 2 percent Neanderthal DNA. So, to some extent, a bond still exists between this child and us.

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