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Missing human fossils rediscovered

A treasure trove of important human fossils from the Middle East, missing since the 1950s, has been identified among the Museum’s collections.

The fossil collection contains material from some of the earliest humans to practice agriculture and from sites where early modern humans and Neanderthals may have coexisted.

It was donated to the Museum in 2001 by the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS). Museum palaeontologists have been working on its conservation since then and have now been able to identify it as a set of missing fossils.

Skeletons in the closet

The material was excavated from several sites in what is now Israel in the 1920s and 1930s by Dorothy Garrod, a pioneering female archaeologist. She collaborated with Sir Arthur Keith, who was Master of a RCS research station, on descriptions of the human material.

The rediscovered fossils were found among Sir Keith’s personal belongings. Some material was sent to the Museum in 1955 after his death, but a significant amount was missing, probably becoming separated due to relocation during bombing of the RCS in the Second World War.

‘It's sometimes possible to make important finds through careful detective work on existing collections, rather than from new excavations, and this study is a great example of that,’ said Museum human origins expert Prof Chris Stringer. ‘The material in question had been stored, unrecognised, for about 50 years until it arrived at the Museum in 2001.’

Now the material has been identified, scientists will use ancient DNA, dating and morphology to unravel new evidence of early human migration and culture.

Out of Africa

The majority of the rediscovered fossil material was from Shukbah Cave, the site where Garrod first described the Natufian culture that existed 12-15,000 years ago.

The Natufian artefacts and sites showed some evidence of early agriculture, as well as settlements and even some of the first evidence of dog domestication.

Another smaller collection of material likely dates back to around 50,000 years ago. The location and timing of this material means it may cover the period of overlap between the last Neanderthals and early modern humans in Israel.

‘Very few early modern human fossils exist that date to [this period] and the material is therefore very significant,’ said Dr Isabelle De Groote, now at Liverpool John Moores University.

‘It has the potential to answer important questions about the dispersal of anatomically modern humans out of Africa.’