The Japan Times, March 1, 1999
By ROBIN McKIE
Neanderthal Man type site rediscovered
LONDON-Scientists have unearthed the lost treasure of the Neander Valley in Germany. They have pinpointed the site where the first fossils of Neanderthal Man were unearthed 140 years ago and have dug up missing parts of the original skeleton.
To their astonishment, one piece (found under 6 meters of 100-year-old quarry waste) actually fits the original Neander Valley skeleton.
Researchers have likened the discovery to finding the arms of the Venus de Milo. "It's absolutely wonderful," says Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London.
The original pieces of bone and skull, including the now distinctive glowering brow-ridge of Neanderthal Man, were discovered by workers in 1856 in a cave in a quarry in the Neander Valley, near Dusseldorf. The bones were odd, thick and curved, and were originally thought to be those of an old invader, a deformed Cossack who had crawled into the cave to die.
Several years later, however, after publication of Darwin's "On the Origin of Species," the Irish anatomist William King realized the bones' importance. They belonged to an ancient human who was biologically different from us, he said. He called it Neanderthal Man: man of the Neander Valley.
Archaeologists returned to the quarry, but found the cave had been destroyed as the area was dynamited, excavated, bulldozed flat and its limestone transported to Dusseldorf to supply the steel industry. In the 1920s, the area was turned into a park. Several other Neanderthal sites have been unearthed, but the first, and most important, was thought lost to science.
Then, in a piece of scientific sleuthing worthy of Indiana Jones, Ralf Schmitz and Jurgen Thissen, of Germany's Office for the Preservation of Archaeological Monuments, have defied the odds. In 19th-century paintings and on old maps of the cave, Schmitz and Thissen recognized a rock that still stood in the Neander park.
"They dug a couple of deep trenches nearby and began to sift through the rocks and debris at the bottom," says one of their colleagues, Dr. Barbel Auffermann, of the Neanderthal Museum. "Eventually, they found some bat teeth and pieces of stalactites. You only get those in caves."
The team then began a careful examination of the rubble and found 20 fragments of bone. One of these exactly fit the left knee joint of the original Neanderthal Man. In addition, the pair found other pieces of bone, stone tools and blades, and animal bones that may have been the remains of prey.
"It's sensational," says U.K. archaeologist Paul. Bahn. "There is every prospect that we will find a lot more Neanderthal bones and tools now the site has been relocated."
DNA studies based on the find support the argument that Neanderthals were not our ancestors, but distant biological cousins, says Stringer. Tests on one of the newly discovered pieces also showed the original skeleton is 40,000 years old, which makes it relatively recent. Homo neanderthalensis apparently died out about 10,000 years later, after ruling Europe for 200,000 years. Modern humans, Homo sapiens, poured into the continent from the east, and replaced them.
Unfortunately, not every Neanderthal fossil contains DNA, an unstable molecule that decays over time. Neanderthal DNA is in scarce supply. Thanks to Schmitz and Thissen, scientists have now got a potentially rich new source.
"The lessons of the Neander Valley are not over yet," says Stringer.