Neanderthal of the North Sea

15 June 2009

Scientists have identified a fragment of Neanderthal skull in sediments extracted from the bottom of the North Sea, in a discovery announced today.

This is the oldest human bone discovered underwater, and it gives scientists clues about humans living in northern Europe during the last ice age.

CT scan showing Neanderthal skull fragment

CT scan showing Neanderthal skull fragment © Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig

The skull fragment, which probably belonged to a young adult male, was found with animal remains and artefacts. They were dredged up 15km off the coast of the Netherlands in an area called Zeeland Ridges, part of the now submerged ‘Doggerland’.

An international team, led by Prof Jean-Jacques Hublin from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology at Leipzig in Germany, studied the skull fragment. The team included archaeologist Wil Roebroeks, a Dutch member of the AHOB (Ancient Human Occupation of Britain) project. 

They found that it matched most closely remains from France that belonged to Neanderthals living roughly 50-60,000 years ago.

‘This is a very significant discovery,’ said Professor Chris Stringer, human origins expert at the Natural History Museum, who directs the AHOB project. ‘The skull fragment represents the first ancient human found from below the sea – who knows what else we may find down there!’

Animals and artefacts

The animal fossils found with the skull fragment date from the late Pleistocene (130,000–12,000 years ago). The artefacts include flakes and small hand axes, like those associated with Neanderthals from about 60,000 years ago.

Rich for mammal fossils

The North Sea is one of the world’s richest areas for mammal fossils because of its relatively shallow southern region, much of which is less than 50m deep.

‘For most of the last half-a-million years, sea levels were significantly lower than today, and at times, substantial areas of the current North Sea were dry land,’ says Stringer.

‘There were extensive river systems with wide river valleys, lakes and floodplains and these areas were rich habitats for large herds of herbivores and the animals that preyed on them, including early humans.’

'Isotope analyses of this North Sea Neanderthal match other specimens in suggesting a diet dominated by meat.'

Stringer adds, ‘Woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, horse, reindeer and other Pleistocene mammal fossils are brought ashore every year by the fishing industry and from other dredging operations, and some fishermen now concentrate on collecting fossils rather than fish!’

Humans lived there too

As well as ice age mammals, artefact finds show that early humans were in this area too.

Model head of a Neanderthal man

Model head of a Neanderthal man

About 60,000 years ago Neanderthals were crossing this region to reach Britain, and their artefacts are associated with mammoth fossils at the site of Lynford in Norfolk.

This topic is being studied by the AHOB project and its European collaborators, and the exciting Zeeland Ridges find means that, for the first time, fossil evidence of these Doggerland Neanderthals is available.

Mammoth remains at the Museum

Thousands of fossils and hundreds of artefacts have been collected by fishermen and dredgers from the North Sea over the last 200 years.

Finds, including over 100 mammoth remains from Doggerland, are looked after at the Natural History Museum, and they are studied by scientists from all over the world.

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