Face to face with Neanderthals

Science: The American Museum of Natural History assembles the first composite reconstruction of a famously extinct branch of the hominid family.

February 16, 2003|By John Noble Wilford | John Noble Wilford,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- In a laboratory in the upper recesses of the American Museum of Natural History, away from the public galleries, Dr. Ian Tattersall, a tall Homo sapiens, stooped and came face to face with a Neanderthal man, short and robust but bearing a family resemblance -- until one looked especially closely.

A paleoanthropologist who has studied and written about Neanderthals, Tattersall was getting his first look at a virtually complete skeleton from this famously extinct branch of the hominid family. Nothing quite like it has ever been assembled before, the foot bones connected to the ankle bones and everything else up to the cranium.

It is, the museum says, the first composite reconstruction of a full Neanderthal skeleton based on actual fossils.

`So much like us'

Tattersall's initial reaction was visceral, then more analytical. "For the first time, I really feel I have met a Neanderthal," he said. "He was so much like us, but actually quite different."

Examining the upright skeleton, Tattersall disputed the notion, once common even among some scientists, that Neanderthals may have been so humanlike that if dressed in contemporary clothing, they could have passed unrecognized on the subway. This impression has been characterized in popular cartoon figures of a heavy-browed Neanderthal in a jaunty fedora.

"This definitely is its own species," Tattersall affirmed, glancing first to the Neanderthal and then to a modern human skeleton next to it. "If people didn't believe that before, by all rights they should now."

Standing 5 feet 4 1/2 inches, thought to be a typical height of a Neanderthal man, the skeleton is on display at the museum, in New York City, in an exhibit. Showmanship as well as science was behind the skeleton's creation.

Recognized in 1856

These prehistoric people, who lived mostly in Europe and parts of central and southwestern Asia, vanished about 30,000 years ago. Since the first of their fossils were recognized in 1856, Neanderthals have been objects of mystery and endless conjecture. They are, in many respects, the dinosaurs of hominid studies.

Like the fate of the dinosaurs, their extinction has kept scholarly mills grinding out imaginative theories. Similarly, popular culture often treats Neanderthals as the personification of obsolescence. They are the brutes of caveman caricature (sometimes, anachronistically, sharing the turf with hulking dinosaurs).

They have been maligned as an inferior breed not smart enough to survive, even though Neanderthals apparently managed well in challenging climates for more than 200,000 years -- longer than modern Homo sapiens have so far done.

One reason for the misunderstanding is that not a single remotely complete skeleton of a Neanderthal has turned up. The many artistic re-creations invite scientific criticism as being interpretations of Neanderthal appearances and behavior. A less subjective study starts with anatomy -- with the skeleton.

Dr. Erik Trinkaus, a Neanderthal specialist at Washington University in St. Louis, who was not involved in the project, said the reconstructions were especially important for computer models of biomechanics, the way they stood, walked and ran.

So technicians at the museum, working with the skill and patience of reconstructive surgeons, assembled a full skeleton from the exact casts of fossil parts from several specimens.

"The whole skeleton is in essence a transplant," said Gary Sawyer, a senior technician in anthropology, who directed the reconstruction.

Sawyer and other technicians began developing their skills several years ago with the reconstruction of Peking Man, a Homo erectus from China. Their goal is to re-create skeletons of about 20 hominid species.

Last summer, they finished a prototype Neanderthal skeleton and have since added more body parts for the new version. With so much work and thought invested in their creation, they now wish they could give it an appropriate sobriquet.

Based on fossils

Up to 90 percent of the amalgamated skeleton is made from polyurethane replicas based on actual fossils. These are stained a yellowish brown, the color of most excavated fossils. A few parts, particularly cartilage associated with the rib cage, are inferred by context. All such parts are colored gray.

"This was not the easiest thing to do," Sawyer said. "There were not an awful lot of parts of Neanderthals available to us."

The museum borrowed fossil casts. The ribs, spine and some pelvic bones were derived from a 60,000-year-old Neanderthal found at Kebara cave in Israel.

Anatomically modern humans may have seen their first Neanderthals in what is now Israel some 90,000 years ago. They occupied the same region from time to time, and it is tempting to imagine their shock of recognition.

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