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Ancient Tooth Shows Neanderthal Mobility

February 10, 2008

A 40,000-year-old tooth, discovered in southern Greece, may suggest that Neanderthals were more mobile than was once assumed.

The tooth is part of the first and only Neanderthal remains to be found in Greece. Researchers say that it shows that the ancient human had spent part of its life away from where it died..

“Neanderthal mobility is highly controversial,” said paleoanthropologist Katerina Harvati at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

Some experts believe Neanderthals roamed over very limited areas, but others say they must have been more mobile, particularly when hunting. Until now, experts only had indirect evidence, including stone used in tools, Harvati said.

“Our analysis is the first that brings evidence from a Neanderthal fossil itself,” she said.

The Max Planck Institute team discovered the tooth during a seaside excavation in Greece’s southern Peloponnese region in 2002. The findings were published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

By looking at the tooth’s enamel for ratios of a strontium isotope, a naturally occurring metal found in food and water, researchers can see that the Neanderthal had apparently had traveled through the course of its life because levels of the metal vary in different areas.

Eleni Panagopoulou of the Paleoanthropology-Speleology Department of Southern Greece said the tooth’s levels of strontium showed that the Neanderthal grew up at least 12.5 miles from the discovery site.

“Our findings prove that … their settlement networks were broader and more organized than we believed,” Panagopoulou said.

Clive Finlayson, an expert on Neanderthals and director of the Gibraltar Museum, disagreed with the finding’s significance.

“I would have been surprised if Neanderthals didn’t move at least 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) in their lifetime, or even in a year … We’re talking about humans, not trees,” Finlayson said.

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