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The Face of Neandertal Man October 6, 2000
by Paul G. Bahn

More pieces of the first Neandertal skeleton ever found have been unearthed, including a portion of its face. The initial discovery of 16 bones was made by quarrymen in the Neander Valley near Düsseldorf, western Germany; it had been thought that after the discovery in 1856 the actual cave site had been entirely quarried away. The area has more recently been used for turning cars into scrap-metal.

In January 1999, prehistorians Ralf Schmitz and Jürgen Thissen from the Rheinisches Amt für Bodendenkmalpflege, Bonn, startled the archaeological world with the announcement that they had not only located the original site of the cave, but also some bone fragments, one of which fitted onto the original knee-joint. They have now reported finds from their latest excavations, which involved a search of tons of loam and limestone rubble within which they found thousands of stone tools and some 50 fragments of human bone, including molars, vertebrae, and bits of ribs, pelvis, and toes. The most remarkable find, however, was a portion of face--the left eye-socket, cheekbone, and nasal area--that fit neatly into the skullcap found in 1856.

"Suddenly the Neandertaler is looking at us for the first time," declared the excavators. In 1999, the two researchers also announced the discovery of two small fragments of an upper arm bone that must be from a second individual, since the corresponding bone from the original Neandertal was intact. They now have fragments of three bones (humerus, tibia, and ulna) which are clearly from this second skeleton, but they are somewhat slender, suggesting they may be from a female or--as Schmitz and Thissen suspect--possibly an anatomically modern human. At about 44,000 years old, these would be the earliest modern human remains known in Europe. They hope that further anatomical and genetic analyses will help to clarify this possibility, especially as the newly unearthed bones remain uncontaminated by modern hands, unlike the 1856 finds.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America