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Neanderthal Child’s Tooth Found in Palestinian Cave Tells A Tale of Africa

Neanderthal Child’s Tooth Found in Palestinian Cave Tells A Tale of Africa

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A team of archaeologists from the Max Planck Institute recently reexamined a set of artifacts recovered from the Shuqba Cave, which included a Neanderthal child’s tooth. It is the first evidence that Neanderthals made it that far south and makes it highly possible that Neanderthals could have reached Africa.

The Shuqba Cave is located in the Hebron Hills of the Palestinian West Bank, 17 miles (28 kilometers) northwest of Jerusalem. The artifact collection from the cave was held at the Natural History Museum in London and was comprised primarily of an assortment of stone tools manufactured using Nubian Levallois reduction techniques, which were allegedly developed by Homo sapiens (modern humans) in the Late Middle Paleolithic period (70,000 BC to 50,000 BC).

In addition to tools and some animal bones, however, the collection included one unique and intriguing find. That was a single large molar tooth, which had been tentatively identified as belonging to an adult human.

 In the 92 years that had passed since the tooth and the other artifacts were discovered by archaeologist Dorothy Garrod at Shuqba, this identification had never been challenged. 

But it turns out the tooth didn’t belong to a Homo Sapien at all. Upon closer examination, the archaeologists were able to confirm that the molar was a  Neanderthal child's tooth . The child would have been approximately nine years old at the time the tooth fell out or was extracted. 

 

 

Photographic and virtual rendering of the Neanderthal child's tooth. ( Scientific Reports )

A Neanderthal Child’s Tooth From Palestine Changes History!

This is the first time a  Neanderthal fossil  has ever been recovered from a location this far to the south. Other archaeological discoveries had revealed a Neanderthal presence in certain areas of the Levant, which comprises modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Palestine, and Israel. But the discovery of the Neanderthal child’s tooth in the Shuqba Cave proves that Neanderthals settled farther south than had previously been suspected, raising an intriguing possibility in the process.

“We have speculated for a long time whether Neanderthals ever got to Africa,”  said Chris Stringer , a human evolution expert from the Natural History Museum who was involved in the Max Planck Institute study. 

“Up to now, we have no direct evidence of a Neanderthal presence in Africa,” Stringer continued. “But the southerly location of Shuqba, only about 400 km from  Cairo, should remind us that they may have even dispersed into Africa at times.”

The Palestinian West Bank, where the Neanderthal child's tooth was found in the Shuqba Cave, and its proximity to the northeastern edges of Africa. (Dank Chicken /  CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Since the Neanderthal child’s tooth was found inside a shelter, along with tools and animal bones, it suggests the Neanderthal family was living there, and had not just stopped briefly on their way to somewhere else. Therefore, it is certainly possible that this represents the farthest southern advance of the Neanderthals, and that they never did make it to  Africa.

But the  Neanderthals were still 10,000 to 30,000 years away from becoming extinct at the time this child and his kin took up residence at Shuqba. That would have left these southernly Neanderthals plenty of time to continue their migration to the south and east, possibly passing through the northern  Arabian Peninsula  along the Eastern Mediterranean coast on their way to explore the mysterious lands of northern Africa.

Nubian Levallois tools found in the cave with the Neanderthal child’s tooth. ( Scientific Reports )

The Tools And The Tooth Tell a Tantalizing Tale

The location of the Neanderthal child’s tooth is significant for another reason. Up to now, it was assumed that Homo sapiens had invented  Nubian Levallois  toolmaking technology, and that its discovery anywhere automatically meant that  Homo sapiens  had occupied that site. But finding a collection of such tools at a Neanderthal site throws these assumptions into serious doubt. 

There was interbreeding between Neanderthals and humans during the  Middle Paleolithic  period, and since the two species were in contact the Neanderthals could have learned the technology from human compatriots without too much difficulty. Or, they may have invented such tools independently. Either way, it can no longer be assumed that Homo Sapiens were solely responsible for the creation and deposit of Levalloisian artifacts.

Notably, Nubian Levallois tools have been found in southern Arabia, far away from the cave at Shuqba. Since it now appears Neanderthals were manufacturing and/or using these tools, there is no way to be certain who left those tools behind.

How points and spearheads were made from a flint stone core using the Nubian Levallois technique. This particular point was found in the Tabun Cave, an excavated site located in the Nahal Me'arot Nature Reserve, Israel, and has been dated to be more than 50,000 years old. (Gary Todd /  CC0)

One Neanderthal Child’s Tooth Can Change History

During the Middle Paleolithic, it was the cooling of the climate associated with the last glacial advance that forced the Neanderthals to abandon their original territories in Europe and Asia and move southward. Their movement into the Levant was no tentative exploration of a new region, but part of an ongoing mass migration sparked by abrupt climate change. Under the circumstances, there no logical reason to assume Neanderthal migrants would have stopped their advance in the Levant, not when more warm and fertile territories still lay ahead.

Unfortunately, looking for evidence of penetration into the continent of Africa by Neanderthals may be like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Excavations that produce authentic Neanderthal artifacts are rare. And if Neanderthal excursions into Africa were few and far between evidence that proves they happened may never be found. 

The good news is that a lone Neanderthal child’s tooth found at a surprising location was enough to irrevocably alter the way archaeologists perceive the past. This shows that even the smallest of discoveries can have dramatic implications. 

Top image: The Neanderthal child’s tooth was found in a cave like this one along with  Nubian Levallois  tools that had always assumed to be the work of Homo sapiens.                        Source:  Kovalenko I  / Adobe Stock

By Nathan Falde

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