All  
Researchers excavating at Untermassfeld allege that part of a deer bone protruding from the sediment on 28 May 2009 (in box, left) had disappeared several days later.

Claims of Stolen Bones Leading to Misconstrued Conclusions of Early Human Migration to Northern Europe

Print

Strong allegations have come forward against a controversial theory suggesting that hominins were hacking away at animal bones and chipping out stone tools thousands of years ago in what is now Germany. Two of the more severe claims suggest fossil theft and lies have taken place.  These accusations are not to be taken lightly, so what are they based on?

According to Nature News , there is a strong concern that bones used as evidence for what may be one of the earliest human settlements in northern Europe were stolen and taken out of context. Newsweek says the authors of the allegations are reporting stolen bones from the site have been used in inappropriate ways – with misconstrued interpretations of hammer and blade marks being left by early hominins. They believe that some of the images presented as evidence match fossils that were illegally removed from the excavation site.

The accusations have been presented by archaeologist Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University in the Netherlands and palaeontologist Ralf-Dietrich Kahlke, head of the Senckenberg Research Station of Quaternary Palaeontology in Weimar, Germany and the leader of excavations at Untermassfeld.

Excavations at the Untermassfeld site in Germany have provided more than more than 14,000 large animal bones.

Excavations at the Untermassfeld site in Germany have provided more than more than 14,000 large animal bones. ( Marc Steinmetz )

They say that two authors of three papers, published in 2013, 2016, and 2017 in the Journal of Human Evolution  and Quaternary International came to their conclusions through inappropriate means. The two researchers being accused are Günter Landeck of the North Hessian Society of Prehistory and Archeology of the Medieval in Bad Hersfeld, Germany, and Joan Garcia Garriga at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya in Barcelona.

The mainstream perspective on human migration to Europe places hominins in southern Europe around 800,000 to 1 million years ago. Although most archaeologists agree that hominins may have sometimes ventured further north, it is generally accepted that this wasn’t common until about 500,000 years ago.

Model of adult female Homo erectus, one of the first truly human ancestors of modern man.

Model of adult female Homo erectus, one of the first truly human ancestors of modern man. ( CC BY SA 2.0 )

Yet some recent claims of early hominin occupation in northern Europe are linked to Untermassfeld, a fossil site about 150 kilometers (93.21 miles) northeast of Frankfurt, Germany. Over 14,000 large animal fossils dating from between 900,000 and 1.2 million years ago have been found at the site since excavations began there in the late 1970s. No hominin bones are said to have been unearthed there.

Landeck and Garcia Garriga wrote in their reports that the material they analyzed came from “the Schleusingen collection”, which they stated was recovered by a biology teacher in the late 1970s and early 1980s” [via Nature News.] However, Kahlke questions this attribution and has stated no knowledge of the collection’s existence. Moreover, Kahlke asserts that while the rocks found near the site could have possibly been attained properly, the animal fossils were not made available to any other research teams. Nonetheless, some have been stolen.

The Times reports that while the critics of the studies are not directly accusing the researchers of falsifying their work intentionally or stealing the bones themselves, they are uneasy about the quality of the research and the repercussions of its publication.

Right metacarpus of Dama nestii vallonnetensis showing signs of rodent modifications or possible skimming

Right metacarpus of Dama nestii vallonnetensis showing signs of rodent modifications or possible skimming. ( Roebroeks, W. et al )

In response to the accusations, Landeck and Garcia Garriga told Nature News “We have nothing to do with a stolen bone.” They also said most of the bones they analyzed came from “two private collections amassed in the 1970s and early 1980s, and that much of it came from the same geological layer as Untermassfeld, but not within the site itself.” Garcia Garriga has denied having a role in the analysis of the Untermassfeld material, stating he only helped with discussing the data and suggesting possible implications for archaeology. Garcia Garriga also told The Times,

“[The criticism] has no scientific basis, methodology or analysis, but mere opinions, insinuations and criticisms against the papers demonstrating hominin occupation at Untermassfeld and sites older than a million years in Europe.”

The researchers plan to publish a more complete response to the allegations soon.

Fossils found at Untermassfeld.

Fossils found at Untermassfeld. ( biorxiv.org)

The new allegations have led editors who published the results of the controversial studies in 2013, 2016, and 2017 to include a note showing an “expression of concern” – making it known that there may be problems with the research due to the unclear location of the Untermassfeld artifacts.

Whatever the conclusion of this situation, the issue does bring to light the concern researchers must have when exploring hypotheses and accepting material remains. It is extremely important to be aware of the origins and context of artifacts that will be used in any study.

Top Image: Researchers excavating at Untermassfeld allege that part of a deer bone protruding from the sediment on 28 May 2009 (in box, left) had disappeared several days later. Source: Ralf-Dietrich Kahlke

By Alicia McDermott

Next article