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Fate of the Neandertals Volume 53 Number 4, July/August 2000
by João Zilhão

[image] View of the Lagar Velho rock shelter (Courtesy João Zilhão)

The bones of a four-year-old child, buried for millennia in the rear of a rock-shelter in the Lapedo Valley 85 miles north of Lisbon, Portugal, comprised the first complete Palaeolithic skeleton ever dug in Iberia. Our November 28, 1998, find made national news, but an even greater surprise was in store when my colleague, Washington University anthropologist Erik Trinkaus, who measured the bones weeks after the discovery, reported that the child's anatomy could only have resulted from a mixed Neandertal-early modern human ancestry. Here, finally, was proof that Neandertals did not simply disappear from Europe 28,000 years ago. Instead, they interbred with modern humans and became part of our family.

The discovery was made by João Maurício and Pedro Souto, archaeology field assistants and members of a local archaeology group, who visited the valley at my request to check on reports that a student from a nearby village had found some prehistoric paintings. The reports turned out to be genuine. The student showed them a few small, red anthropomorphic figures in a style characteristic of the Copper Age (fourth and third millennia B.C.) painted on the back wall of a shallow rock-shelter on the north side of the valley.

While they were there, João and Pedro decided to inspect a larger shelter they saw on the opposite side of the valley. When they got there, the first thing they noticed was that archaeological deposits in the shelter had recently been destroyed; we later learned that in 1992 the landowner had bulldozed the upper six to nine feet of the shelter's fill to widen a rural trail used to reach property located farther up the valley. All that was left was a foot-and-a-half remnant of the original deposit in a fissure running along most of the length of the shelter's back wall. This remnant corresponds to a section of the original stratigraphic sequence lying between two and three feet below the former ground surface.

The remnant was extremely rich in charcoal, stone tools, and animal remains, including fossilized horse teeth, all suggesting an Upper Palaeolithic age (between 30,000 and 10,000 years ago) for the site. While collecting surface material that had fallen from the remnant, João and Pedro inspected a recess in the back wall. In the loose sediments they recovered several small bones stained with red ochre they thought could be human. Recognizing the potential significance of the discovery, they stopped investigating and reported their finds to me.

Archaeologists Cidália Duarte and Cristina Araújo excavated the child's skeleton. (Courtesy João Zilhão)

The following weekend, on December 6, I went to the site with my colleagues Cristina Araújo, a fellow archaeologist, and Cidália Duarte, a bioarchaeologist specializing in burial taphonomy (how bodies are buried and preserved). João and Pedro presented their finds and two things almost immediately became clear. First, the bones they thought could be human were indeed the left forearm and hand bones of a young child. Second, stone tools found in the fissure dated the deposit to the Middle Solutrean and the Proto-Solutrean, that is, the period between 20,000 and 22,000 years ago. Since the juvenile human bones that lay some nine feet below this remnant belonged to a single individual and were very well preserved, the implication was obvious: a child had been buried at the site either in late Middle Palaeolithic or in early Upper Palaeolithic times, between 40,000 and 25,000 years ago. The ochre staining of the bones (a feature of all burials from the Gravettian period between 25,000 and 27,000 years ago) and rough estimates of the rate of sedimentation at the site led us to believe that a date closer to 25,000 years ago was more likely.

This conclusion prompted me to start a salvage excavation of the site, which we called the Lagar Velho rock-shelter after the ruin of an ancient olive-oil press at its entrance. The excavation began on December 12, 1998, continuing without interruption through Christmas and the New Year until January 7, 1999.

Throughout the 1998-1999 salvage work we were able to count on the invaluable advice of Erik Trinkaus, to whom I e-mailed digital pictures of the excavation daily. Realizing the potential significance of the burial, Cidália Duarte and I invited him to the site to study the skeleton. An authority on Neandertals and early modern humans, Erik was already involved in analyzing Palaeolithic human material from Portugal.

While Cidália and I completed the fieldwork, Erik began to clean and reassemble the skeleton and work toward a preliminary anatomical description. After returning to the United States, he was able to compare the bones with his extensive data base on Neandertals and early modern humans. On January 25, I got a message from him which began with the ominous words: "The end of last week I made some quick comparisons of the Lagar Velho [child's] leg bone proportions with some data that I have, and it comes out looking like a Neandertal!" Other resemblances with Neandertals followed, but throughout this initial stage Cidália and I kept in mind Erik's cautionary remark in that first message: "unless I have made some silly mistake."

We decided to check and double check all the measurements ourselves, and eventually concluded that Erik had made no mistake--the child did present a mosaic of Neandertal and modern human features. Most prominent among the former, the arctic body proportions (with short limbs, especially the lower parts of the arms and legs), the robusticity of the limb bones and the angle at which the jaw bones meet at the chin; among the latter, the characteristic "snow-plow" chin and the size of the dentition.

João Zilhão is director-general of the Instituto Português de Arqueologia, the department of the Ministry of Culture that supervises all archaeological activity in Portugal.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America