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Neanderthal woman in pieces

Posted by Rose Feb 11, 2014

She's 400,000 years old and her faceless skull is now mounted in an elegant display case in readiness for the Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story exhibition opening at the Museum on 13 February.

 

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Could this 400,000-year-old skull, belonging to an early Neanderthal woman, be one of the first Neanderthals in Britain? The skull is one of more than 120 specimens and objects on show in the Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story exhibition.

 

The early Neanderthal woman's skull was found in Swanscombe, Kent and, despite its age, it reveals a great deal. Her brain left its mark on the surrounding bone. Faint impressions of folds and blood vessels show it was a similar size as a human's brain today.

 

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The back of the Swanscombe skull has characteristic Neanderthal features, including a small pit where the neck muscles attached to the skull.

 

You'll see this striking specimen assembled as one exhibit in the exhibition, but look closely and you'll discover it actually comprises three parts.

 

Observing Museum curator, Rob Kruszynski, steadily hold the three skull pieces together at a recent photo shoot we attended, I listened intently as he recounted how remarkably well they fit together. Especially when you consider that they were found at different times in Swanscombe.

 

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The central skull section (occipital) was found in June 1935 in Swanscombe, Kent, by a local dentist A. T. Marston. The left part (parietal) was found at Swanscombe in March 1936 also by Marston. And the right parietal was found years later in 1955, by archaeologists J. Wymer and A. Gibson. Select images to enlarge.

 

Being so close to this ancient woman's skull and watching Rob handle it so carefully, I found myself wondering who she was and what her life must have been like? Did she die alone or with her family around her? We don't know as much as we would like about Neanderthal lifestyles because nothing was written down, but we do know that they sometimes buried their dead, that it's likely they did have some form of communication and that they lived together in family groups.

 

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This graphic reconstruction of a Neanderthal woman model appears in the exhibition. © PS Plailly/E Daynes/Science Photo Library

 

'There is analysis going on now on a large family group of possibly 12 Neanderthal individuals discovered in a cave site near to El Sidrón in Spain's Asturias,' Rob tells me. 'All had been cannibalised. And evidence suggests there were six adults (three males and one female), three adolescents between 12 and 15 years of age, two juveniles between five and nine years of age, and one infant, and that they were related.

 

'As of 2012, over 1,800 Neanderthal fossil remains and 400 tools have been recovered at El Sidrón, making it one of the largest collections of Neanderthal fossils in Europe to date.'

 

These El Sidrón finds are nowhere near as old as our Swanscombe skull, as they only date back to about 42,000 to 50,000 years, but they have been invaluable in revealing the Neanderthal's own story.

 

Our scientists and archaeologists continue to unravel more about our prehistoric ancestors with such amazing discoveries about the men, women, children, animals and objects they uncover and analyse.