Beautiful and terrible

This is one of the loveliest fossils I've ever seen. They are the bones of a Neanderthal, found in a cave in southern Italy, and although they've been calcified by mineral-rich water trickling through the cave where they were found, it's an almost complete skeleton, with the bones all intact.


That's the grisly part of the story. This person apparently fell into a hole in the karst landscape and was trapped -- he's presumed to have starved to death there. There were no predators able to reach him, either, so his body decayed in place, his bones slumped into a pile, and the slowly accumulating limestone locked everything into a fused lump…until cave explorers shone a light into his tomb and saw his skull looking back at them in 1993.

Now we know how long his bones had laid there undiscovered: about 150,000 years. It's a little late to inform his family of his fate, especially since his subspecies has been extinct for about 40,000 years.

At least we're learning some things from his sad demise. The bones are literally fused into the cave wall, making extraction nearly impossible, and there are some hot arguments against even trying. But recently a small part of one shoulder blade was cut loose and analyzed.

The sample was dated, which is how we know how long ago this individual suffered his unfortunate end. Further, some attempts to extract DNA from the sample have been successful -- it's blown to bits, but enough intact fragments of mitochondrial DNA were found to compare with other specimens: he's definitely Neanderthal, with some regional anatomical peculiarities, and his DNA is distinct from that of modern human and Denisovan populations. But he's old, very old -- keep in mind that the earlier sequenced Neanderthal DNA was about 50,000 years old. This fellow is separated by a distance in time from other Neanderthal DNA specimens that is twice as great as that separating us from the established Neanderthal genome.

Of course, that makes sequencing this genome even more interesting. Also technically far more difficult, maybe impossible.

But here's what we know right now:

Overall, the results of our morphometric and the paleogenetic analyses concur in indicating that the skeleton from Altamura belongs to a Neanderthal. In addition, using U/Th dating we were able to provide the first range of dates for the specimen, between 130±2 ka and 172±15 ka.

Nevertheless, some features exhibited by the skeleton and observed in situ (on the cranium, in particular, as summarized in the Introduction) differ from the morphology known among the typical representatives of Homo neanderthalensis, while they appear consistent with the pre-Würmian age we obtained. Metrical variables show that the scapula-humeral joint is closer to the morphotype usually referred to the so-called “early Neanderthals,” including specimens such as those from Saccopastore, or Apidima. In addition, geometric morphometric analysis of the SGF from Altamura suggests some peculiarities of this small piece of bone, while (consistent with the mtDNA data) the same analysis strengthens the notion that the Neanderthal morphology was essentially present in the late Middle Pleistocene.

Finally, it is of great interest that mtDNA was sufficiently preserved to permit paleogenetic analysis. The results of the explorative approach used here have shown that the sample contained endogenous DNA (although highly fragmented) with a typical Neanderthal haplotype; moreover, there was no evidence of modern human contamination in the bone fragment, at least not at the mtDNA level. For these reasons, the Altamura skeleton should be considered a good candidate for more innovative genomic analyses, like capture approaches or ultra-deep shotgun sequencing, especially when we consider that Altamura represents the most ancient Neanderthal from which endogenous DNA has been retrieved so far.

Lari M, Di Vincenzo F, Borsato A, Ghirotto S, Micheli M, Balsamo C, Collina C, De Bellis G, Frisia S, Giacobini G, Gigli E, Hellstrom JC, Lannino A, Modi A, Pietrelli A, Pilli E, Profico A, Ramirez O, Rizzi E, Vai S, Venturo D, Piperno M, Lalueza-Fox C, Barbujani G, Caramelli D, Manzi G (2015) The Neanderthal in the karst: First dating, morphometric, and paleogenetic data on the fossil skeleton from Altamura (Italy). J Hum Evol pii: S0047-2484(15)00026-3. doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2015.02.007

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If nothing could get to him how did his bones end up in a pile like that, was the space he fell into so narrow that he could only stand?

By Schoombie JD (not verified) on 17 Apr 2015 #permalink

Fascinating. I would very much like to see this in person, it would be nice if they were able to put it in a museum, but I presume that it is to valuable when it comes to research, to remove from it's current position.

By Marilyn McDerm… (not verified) on 17 Apr 2015 #permalink

The fossil's skeleton is different and looks beautiful. Was the Mitochondrial DNA also used to identify the fossil's gender?

By Sigciniwe (not verified) on 17 Apr 2015 #permalink


By Sigciniwe (not verified) on 17 Apr 2015 #permalink

I especially like the title of this post. It grabbed my attention at first glance together with the octopus like human skull illustrated in the photographs. At first I though "look at this an octopus that managed to shape itself into a human skull shape. Fascinating...
Then I got to reading and could identify your beauty and terror. It is really mind blowing that the bone were preserved for such a long time.


Interesting, on the bottom part of the post, there's a part that says the it wasn't easy for predators to reach the organism, now my question is, how did the organism's skeleton become dissociated? Is it because of the time spent in the same place or is there an unexpected twist to this story?


By Thamsanqa Mtshali (not verified) on 17 Apr 2015 #permalink

A very interesting and intellectual blog, it just caught my eye from the first word! Though i'm a bit confused about some facts, it's still a good blog

By Bonginkosi Zwane (not verified) on 17 Apr 2015 #permalink

It is really amazing to see how a skeleton or in contrast, bones can remain unchanged for such a long time, I mean, 150000 years is a lot of time hey. The blog gave me knowledge about a thing or two

The simple explanation for how the bones ended up in a jumble: rot. He died, decayed, the skeleton fell apart, and collapsed into a pile.

This is probably the most objective yet fascinating article I have yet read. The finding of past human like species is a real cornerstone for evolution yet there is still enough uncertainty to prove otherwise. The manner in which they extracted this Neanderthal's DNA is truly amazing. (15106277)

By Merlin (15106277) (not verified) on 17 Apr 2015 #permalink

The fossil’s skeleton is different and looks beautiful. Was the Mitochondrial DNA also used to identify the fossil’s gender?

I have done some research and it seems as if it is possible to remove fossils from limestone but it is very risky and often very time consuming as it can take several years. My question though is: Why aren't they going to remove this skeleton? Is it because of the risk of losing the whole fossil or is it because of the time that it is going to take?

By Herman Rossouw… (not verified) on 17 Apr 2015 #permalink

I agree with the topic, indeed it is beautiful and terrible. Its very interesting to see that fossils like this actually do exist. It is something i never could have imagined in my whole life. Its a rare and unique fossil i suppose. 13175662

By Innocentia (not verified) on 17 Apr 2015 #permalink

Now that they have extracted the mtDNA and carried out paleogenetic analysis, how do they determine that it is Neanderthal and associated with any particular epoch, given that such DNA is a rarity, and how does it differ from homo sapiens DNA, both ancient and modern? In other words, had they found only a tiny fragment of bone, how would they have come to the conclusion that its mtDNA was firstly, from Neanderthal, and secondly, from one of a particular epoch?

By Marnel (u15008160) (not verified) on 17 Apr 2015 #permalink

That is a very fascinating fossil, absolutely unique to other fossils,in a sense of not being sedimented in rocks instead it was slightly cemented with minerals accumulating around the the bones making body of an art during crystallization.The beauty of science is that even in a completely different form of a fossil,scientists were able to analyse the bones and conclude of its origin. (14165865)

By T.G Tsotetsi (not verified) on 17 Apr 2015 #permalink

Neanderthals were hunters and gatherers. That was their social structure. With this nature hard-coded in their DNA, it was instinct to explore and "journey" to unknown territory. While exploring the the vast emptiness of the land back then, this poor neanderthal most probably found himself stuck. This insignificant accident ensured an important discovery in science that educates us in understanding our creation.

By Mia (15127444) (not verified) on 17 Apr 2015 #permalink

Very interesting blog indeed. It is amazing how much information we are able to obtain from a ancient pile of bones. Is it not possible that the neanderthal died from the impact of the fall instead of starving??

By Dillan (14108608) (not verified) on 17 Apr 2015 #permalink

Scientists say we interbred with Neanderthals (and Denisovans). So Neanderthals (and Denisovans) are us. What’s the big deal finding a pretty human skull?

By See Noevo (not verified) on 17 Apr 2015 #permalink

This is a very interesting blog but,the fact that they can use mtDNA from a 150 000 year old fossil stuns me! I have read that although most DNA is stored in chromosomes in the nucleus, this DNA is in the mitochondrion and is known as mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). It is a unique DNA, and with its high mutation rate and high copy number it is the DNA of choice for human evolution studies.


This article not only speaks about the most attractive fossil found or the death of this specific Neanderthal but also supports the Out-of-Africa migration theory. It is also great to see how finding this fossil provides evidence that the Neanderthals did indeed live in Europe. However, how is it possible that this Neanderthal is separated in time from other Neanderthal DNA?

The beauty of this fossil is questionable, though It is quite interesting when the fossil is calcified by mineral-rich water to make a very interesting piece of art. What else can one calcify with mineral-rich water?


By Sthembiso Makofane (not verified) on 18 Apr 2015 #permalink

This was indeed a fascinating blog to read. I was unaware of the methods used to date fossils. This fossil is indeed beautiful and an interesting specimen.


By Jovishka Maharaj (not verified) on 18 Apr 2015 #permalink

It is amazing to know that mitochondrial DNA can be preserved for such a long time. Even though there's no evidence of human contamination, I think further investigation can reveal more information which can broaden our understanding of Neanderthal and contribute more in the genomic analysis.15034837

I found this blog very interesting ,however it is interesting that starvation is the predicted cause of death. How was it determined that the Neanderthal died from starvation as appose to another factor such as dehydration or the impact of the fall? How do we eliminate possibilities of bleeding out or even climate factors when determining the cause of death?


The title as well as the images captured my attention instantly! This is truely fascinating and quite an impressive discovery. i recall reading about mitochondrial DNA which can be traced as far back as to our ancestors. i never knew that bones could stay well in tact for so many years without carefully preserving them.

By Kaycee Skinner (not verified) on 18 Apr 2015 #permalink

The title as well as the images captured my attention instantly! This is truely fascinating and quite an impressive discovery. i recall reading about mitochondrial DNA which can be traced as far back as to our ancestors. i never knew that bones could stay well in tact for so many years without carefully preserving them.

By Kaycee Skinner (not verified) on 18 Apr 2015 #permalink

A-MA-ZING! So many years and still in taked. Rather unfortunate that his family never got closure. I think he should remain in his final resting place, it is sacred. Thanks for a wonderful article.


So creepy buT absolutely beautiful. It's amazing how mother nature turns this fossil into something really truly amazing.

A rather beautiful but awfully disgusting image to stare at for too long . Besides the damage caused to my eyes this discovery is one that makes prehistoric earth even more interesting. The usage of mitochondrial DNA I this article has defined one purpose of this particular DNA I was not aware of.(u14018676)

By Katlego Ntshudisane (not verified) on 18 Apr 2015 #permalink

Surely X-rays were done on the remains to eliminate impact of the fall as a possible cause of death. Fractures, sustained ante-mortem and post-mortem, on the bones may have led scientists to conclude that impact sustained during the fall wasn't the cause of death.

By u15084656 (not verified) on 18 Apr 2015 #permalink

Scientists see things, that is disgusting but the quality of the reseacher and the discovery are great. 15202829

u15064558 _Wow this is rather interesting then scary... Didn't know that the mitochondrial DNA was this important in life. I'm also impress with how this fossil actually looks like... I'm also glad I read this article I've learned something that I really didn't know about.

By Nosipho Masina (not verified) on 18 Apr 2015 #permalink

So he is the oldest Neanderthal specimen to be found? 15091784

I found the images very intriguing as it made me curious to find out what happened to this skeleton in order for it to end up looking like that. It still amazes me that technology has evolved so much that we are able to determine the fossil's age, study and analyse its genome.

This was very interesting because this is the oldest Neanderthal species that has been found and it is much older than previous examples of this species. It is an incredible fossil because it is almost fully complete other than other fossils. This makes this fossil great to do proper research on. (15044654)

By Munnik Hertzog (not verified) on 18 Apr 2015 #permalink

The fossil is beautiful, thank you - PZ Myers - for sharing such an incredible find with us. As Munnik Hertzog mentioned, this find is one of the oldest Neanderthal species that has been found to date - and I believe that it is a vital piece of the puzzle when it comes to piecing the origin of humankind together. This almost-complete skeleton could fill in some very important gaps that others have left in the study of the Neanderthal species.

By Jadene Jacobs … (not verified) on 18 Apr 2015 #permalink

Absolutely incredible. I agree with Jadene Jacobs, may play a very important role in dating back certain linages and adaptations from the early Neanderthal's to modern humans today.

By Sven Rudi Gebert (not verified) on 18 Apr 2015 #permalink

This skeleton is so interesting. I've never seen anything like it before. It is really something special. Thank you for sharing.

By Ronell Kruger (not verified) on 18 Apr 2015 #permalink

Over 150 000 years most of the mtDNA would have been destroyed, therefore is it not wrong to say that this perticular specimen is a Homo Neanderthal. Especially if you consider the high rate of mutation in mtDNA and that other neanderthal specimens are 100 000 years younger (mutations over 100 000 years will show huge differences).

By Guy Schiever u… (not verified) on 19 Apr 2015 #permalink

It is indeed beautiful And fascinating how biological technology can contribute to historical data by dating back to so many years ago. Did the calcium much water contribute to the fossil's preservation?

By Pozisa-15147462 (not verified) on 19 Apr 2015 #permalink

Its amazing how carbon dating can actually tell us how old fossil remains are. I believe its one of the most important methodology that enables us to know how to relate to a fossil remain. Because when we know from which time the fossil is from , we know how to go about extracting extra information

By karabo u14291160 (not verified) on 19 Apr 2015 #permalink

Its amazing how carbon dating can actually tell us how old fossil remains are. I believe its one of the most important methodology that enables us to know how to relate to a fossil remain. Because when we know from which time the fossil is from , we know how to go about extracting extra information in relation to the information we already know about species of that era and the environment existed in that time.

By karabo u14291160 (not verified) on 19 Apr 2015 #permalink

It is interesting to know that for a fossil to be preserved for such a long period, there should have been a perfect chemical balance between some organic material and the type of sediment where it was buried. It is however very likely that the conditions of the sediment can be different from the ones in which a creature lived. In this case however, it did not happen, because the creature almost retained its original form as well as its structure after its death meaning that it was almost perfectly persevered.
Esmarie van der Merwe 11084244

By Esmarie van de… (not verified) on 19 Apr 2015 #permalink

Thank you for this informative article. Palaeontology is a wonderful and very interesting science which could fill in so many blanks and answer so many questions that we have about the past. It is quite amazing that we get to discover and learn from such heritage.

In order to understand fossils it is important to know how they are formed and to learn what fossils are.after reading this blog i got interested on researching more about fossils and learning about them.u14231591

By Nhlamulo Hobyane (not verified) on 19 Apr 2015 #permalink

I love the title of this article. Even though it is not directly related to the topic at hand it works very well and grabs one's attention. I have always been fascinated by fossils and how they are formed. However I do not feel that it is possible for his bones to fall in a perfect small pile.

By Zahlia Stacey (not verified) on 19 Apr 2015 #permalink

The characteristics of this specimen are significant as they can be considered important for further study around the link between Homo neanderthalensis and Homo heidelbegensis. The abovementioned ‘Saccopastore-esque’ characteristics of the scapula-humeral joint are typical of H. neanderthalensis dated to more recent ages and are thus considered to be fixed characteristics for the archetypal Neanderthal genome. Other specimens dating to 150ka are more similar to H. heidelbergensis and very primitive H. neanderthalensis. The presence of these characteristics in this particular specimen, suggests a more significant overlap between these typical H neanderthalensis specimens and those more closely related to H. heidelbergensis

By Padayatchi (15… (not verified) on 19 Apr 2015 #permalink

Cool story bro

It is indeed beautiful. So fascinating

It is amazing to see such discoveries being made and how we can use mtDNA to learn more about these fossils. But, is it possible that a fossil can be so old that nothing about it can be determined? And what are the limitations of mtDNA when it comes to U/Th dating?

By Didi Tlhale (not verified) on 19 Apr 2015 #permalink

It is always great to see a breakthrough of this grandeur in science but what are the limitations of this discovery? What else can be calcified?


By Emmanuel Shine (not verified) on 19 Apr 2015 #permalink

This is an amazing discovery. Is it possible to date back fossils without using mtDNA?

By Nhlawulo Vukey… (not verified) on 19 Apr 2015 #permalink

this is a really incredible discovery considering how old the fossil is and how it is still a full skeleton . a great deal of genetic information can be gathered from it.
my question is will they try and remove the fossil in the near future before it is further damaged or its composition altered by the flow of water ?

By u13027744 (not verified) on 19 Apr 2015 #permalink

very very interesting blog, am very fascinated by how the skeleton was found and how it was calcified by mineral-rich water trickling through the cave as well as how it was found in a pile. Also very strange to see how it is implied that the person died of starvation, could have been anything else.

By U15137717 (not verified) on 19 Apr 2015 #permalink

It is extremely clear as to how the skeleton landed up in the pile. clearly it died and dropped and decayed right there.

By Paul Termy (not verified) on 19 Apr 2015 #permalink

....How lucky where they to find the skeleton in the first place. its really incredible how they even found it in a cave just laying there.

By Paul Termy (not verified) on 19 Apr 2015 #permalink

Whenever I read about something like this I always get insatiably curious as to who this person was! What did they like to do? Why was this person wandering alone? Had he been wandering alone? Perhaps he had gotten stuck and been unable to free himself, perhaps he was placed there by other Neanderthals whom he'd had a disagreement with? What if he was a drug dealer of his time?....Well unlikely...but still makes you wonder doesn't it....Look up "The Tollund Man' if you want a similar type of case.

By Hamish Craze (… (not verified) on 19 Apr 2015 #permalink

Its so amazing to see that more fossils are being discovered this can lead to something huge.

Stunning find. Weird though that the skeleton was already discovered in 1993 but is only making headlines now. Is this perhaps because the technologies to analyse the mitochondrial DNA was not yet up to standard or simply because they have had trouble extracting parts of the skeleton for research purposes? I think this is an excellent case to study and give us a better understanding of the development of Neanderthals.

By A. Durand (not verified) on 20 Apr 2015 #permalink

If you first look at it., it's kinda terrifying but once you look at it closely you'll see the beautiful on it. I'd still believe on the saying " Don't judge the book by its cover".

By Vinnah Banaag (not verified) on 20 Apr 2015 #permalink

This is amazing. Indeed the fossil is beautiful. Most fossils are ugly.Its nice to know that some fossils can be this beautiful. 15094139

By Silindokuhle Majola (not verified) on 20 Apr 2015 #permalink

It is actually quite easy to remove fossils from limestone, one just need a weak acid like vinegar to remove the stone from bone.

By u15009565 (not verified) on 20 Apr 2015 #permalink

"Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange. "

The Tempest

This is a tremendous finding, would this findings affect what we know about human evolution?

If a Neanderthal walked among us today, would he be able to ride a bus unnoticed and unremarked on?

By Marcy O'Rourke (not verified) on 22 Apr 2015 #permalink

Dan L: Wonderful and apposite quote which made my day!