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30 October 2010
Remains of youngest Neanderthal child found in Belgium

The lower jaw and teeth of a Neanderthal child who lived to be one and a half years old were found in the Spy Cave near Jemeppe-sur-Sambre in Belgium. This is the youngest Neanderthal individual ever discovered in Northwest Europe. The remains of two adults were previously found at the same site. DNA analysis will be conducted to determine if the adults individiuals are related to the infant.
     The mandible was sturdier than that of a modern child of the same age and its teeth were larger with a thinner enamel layer. There are also indications that the child was growing quickly.
     The excavation was lead by Isabelle Crevecoeur who directs the National Center of Scientific Research (CNRS) in France. The study is to be published in the Journal of Human Evolution.
     Crevecoeur describes the site where the discovery was made. "Its location on the bottom of the cliff that overhangs the valley was probably really advantageous with a clear view of the valley. Belgium has a long-standing Neanderthal history," she explained. "The country has the highest concentration of Neanderthal remains. The first Neanderthal specimen ever found was in Belgium during the 19th century." Neanderthal remains from Belgium have also provided the oldest DNA sequence to date.
     The earliest Neanderthal artifacts and remains in the cave date to approximately 38,000 years BCE. It's estimated that the child died 33,000 years ago, so the occupation of the cave lasted at least a thousand years.
     Erik Trinkaus, a physical anthropologist from Washington University in St. Louis (US), is an well-know expert on Neanderthals. He believes that the conclusions of the study are "well-reasoned and reasonable". "There has been a lot of attention (paid) to Neanderthal growth and development, and others - not members of this team - have made statements that are based on very few fossils and pathetically small modern human comparative samples. We are limited in the numbers of fossils we have, and this is a welcome addition to help us get a better handle on the real variation that was there," he added. "And it is only with comparing patterns and levels of variation that we will understand the evolutionary processes involved."
     A visitor center at the Spy cave will open in June of 2011, and is slated to include virtual reconstructions of the andult Neanderthals from the site.

Edited from Discovery News (19 October 2010)

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