Altamura Man is one of the most complete and well-preserved Neanderthal skeletons ever discovered.
For thousands of years, the bones of the Altamura Man, who died of starvation after falling into a sinkhole near the city of Altamura in Southern Italy some 130,000 years ago, waited to be uncovered.
Mountaineers first encountered the limestone-covered bones of Altamura Man in 1993.
The bones were found in a small chamber deep within the karst cave system. The chamber’s inaccessibility (the bones are reached in a 20-minute journey from the surface through narrow slits to the depths of the pit) makes work on the skeleton frustratingly difficult for scientists.
Jacopo Moggi-Cecchi, from the Department of Biology at the University of Florence, said of his experience: “They brought me and many of my colleagues down with ropes. If you ask me, it was an incredible experience. The feeling you get when you go down and see the skeleton there is truly indescribable.” conveys his words.
“This man must have fallen down a rift. Maybe he didn’t notice the hole in the floor. We think he’s just sitting there waiting to die.” continues Professor Jacopo Moggi-Cecchi.
“The rift this man fell through is no longer there, it has been filled with sediment. So it’s impossible for any animal to get in there, so we believe the whole skeleton is there.”
This new study, published by Professor Moggi-Cecchi and colleagues in the journal PLOS, begins to tell us more about Altamura Man.
Based on photographs taken from the depths of the cave, vioscope images and X-rays, scientists have published the first study of the jawbone with an almost complete set of teeth.
The researchers state that the man was an adult, not an old man, and lost two of his teeth before he died.
Professor Moggi-Cecchi comments: “Tooth loss is an interesting situation. We have a large Neanderthal fossil record, and we cannot say that this is customary. Neanderthals were in very good oral health.”
According to Professor Moggi-Cecchi, the visible roots of some teeth may indicate some form of gum disease.
Some teeth in the lower jaw have calcified plaques (tarts) familiar to today’s doctors.
Homo neanderthalensis, which lived in today’s Asia and Europe before disappearing, continued its existence on earth for 350,000 years. Neanderthals went extinct 40,000 years ago, although it is believed that Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis shared the same geography for 30,000 years after some human groups migrated out of Africa.
An earlier study published in 2016, based on DNA analysis of the Altamura Man’s shoulder bone, concluded that the bones belonged to a Neanderthal and lived between 130,000 and 172,000 years ago.
Toothy smile and ‘third hand’
Like other Neanderthals, Altamura Man’s front teeth were larger than those of modern humans, but their grinding teeth were about the same size as humans. Neanderthal jaws are wider and not protruding like modern humans.
Analysis of wear marks and calculus on other Neanderthal teeth allows us to learn about the eating habits of Neanderthals and to understand what other tasks they used their teeth for besides eating.
Professor Moggi-Cecchi says our ancient relatives used their front teeth as a “third hand,” as if they were holding the meat when cutting meat or the skin when preparing the skin. The marks on Altamura Man’s teeth may indicate such activity.
However, Professor Moggi-Cecchi says the skull should be examined in the laboratory for a more detailed analysis, because the teeth, like the rest of the skeleton, are covered with limestone.
Scientists hope that one day the entire skeleton, or at least part of it, will be removed from the cave for further investigation.
Finally, Professor Moggi-Cecchi says that Altamura Man may be a Neanderthal version of Ötzi the Iceman, whose frozen 5,300-year-old body was found in 1991 by a hiking couple in the northern Italian Alps.
A window into early human history for scientists and tourists alike, everything about Ötzi has been studied, including what his voice might have been, what was inside his stomach, and how he died.
“If we can get this much information just by looking at the sample where it is, think about the data we can get when we pull it out of the cave.” says Professor Moggi-Cecchi.
Altamura Neanderthal Teeth Used as Third Hand