Cave Ciemna (Pologne) : bones of a neanderthal child eaten by giant bird

Hannah Osborne

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Capture 34Representative image of Neanderthal skull. Ancient bones of a Neanderthal child have been discovered in modern Poland.ISTOCK

Scientists have discovered the bones of a Neanderthal child who had been eaten by a giant bird. The finger bones appear to have come from a child aged between five and seven. Whether the bird attacked the child, or if it scavenged the bones, is not yet clear.

The remains, discovered in Poland, date back over 115,000 years. They are the oldest ever found in the country found in the country, and have provided researchers with new insight into how and where our ancient relatives lived. Before now,  the oldest human remains found in Poland dated to around 50,000 years.

Researchers from Jagiellonian University in  Krakow came across the bones during excavations at the Cave Ciemna, located in the town of Ojcow. Previous research has shown the cave was occupied by Paleolithic people. It includes passages reaching about 200 meters and a vast chamber where over 1,000 stone artifacts have previously been collected by archaeologists.

In a study that will be published in the Journal of Paleolithic Archaeology later this year, researchers reveal the discovery of the digested Neanderthal digits. The bones are less than one centimeter long and were found alongside other animal remains.

We have no doubts that these are Neanderthal remains, because they come from a very deep layer of the cave, a few meters below the present surface. This layer also contains typical stone tools used by the Neanderthal,” Paweł Valde-Nowak, from the Institute of Archeology at Jagiellonian University, told Science in Poland.

The bones from the child’s hand were found to be porous, with lots of tiny holes over the surface. "Analyses show that this is the result of passing through the digestive system of a large bird. This is the first such known example from the Ice Age,” Valde-Nowak said.

A large bird could have potentially attacked a small Neanderthal child, he said. Alternatively, the bird could have scavenged the bones from a dead body. At the moment, the researchers say, either option is plausible.

They also warn that the discovery does not necessarily mean Neanderthals occupied the cave.

However, it does appear to show Neanderthals had reached Poland more than 100,000 years ago. Valde-Nowak said this species probably appeared in the country about 300,000 years ago: "There is still a discussion as to how long Neanderthals lived in Europe, including Poland,” he said. Whether or not they lived alongside humans in the region is also unclear.

Neanderthals are believed to have gone extinct around 38,000 years ago, having emerged in Europe about 400,000 years ago. They were once thought of as an inferior, more brutish species to modern humans—but evidence is increasingly pointing to their sophistication.

Recent analysis of their hand bones showed they were highly dexterous. By scanning fossils and looking at how the muscle attachments would have worked, scientists were able to build up a picture of how Neanderthals used their hands. Findings showed they would have been able to manipulate objects with the precision of a highly skilled worker.

Another study from September also indicated Neanderthals had a reasonably sophisticated healthcare system and would have provided long-term support for sick and injured members of society. At the time, Penny Spikins, from York’s Department of Archaeology, told Newsweek: “We showed that the high frequency of injuries and recovery [observed in the remains] fitted into a lifestyle in which Neanderthals needed to be able to survive injuries in order to find enough food to survive in the environments that they lived in. Care is not just something which makes Neanderthals more 'human' in our eyes but [was] essential to survival and may well have been a significant factor allowing humans to move into an ecological niche of being predators.”

It is not clear why Neanderthals went extinct. Climate change and competition with modern humans have both been implicated—Homo sapiens lived alongside and interbred with Neanderthals for thousands of years, and to this day modern Europeans and Asians have approximately two percent Neanderthal DNA.