A Neanderthal molar has rested on the floor of the Stajnia Cave in Poland for tens of thousands of years. Throughout all those years, the viable mitochondrial DNA had remained locked inside the fossil until very recently.
According to the new analysis, the tooth, labelled Stajnia S5000, belonged to a Neanderthal who lived around 80,000 years ago. This is believed to be within the critical time of environmental upheaval in history, when the landscape of central eastern Europe underwent a dramatic transformation during the Middle Paleolithic era.
During this period, the landscapes of northwestern and central Europe, which were the habitats of the Neanderthal, transformed from rich forests to stepps and frigid taigas. While the new conditions were welcoming to various species like woolly mammoths and woolly rhinos, they were too harsh for the Neanderthals.
Unsurprisingly, the Neanderthal populations shrank, though it returned again as the temperatures got warmer. However, this season was also characterized by extreme seasonal changes and scarcity of food sources.
Around 82,000 years ago, the Marine Isotope Stage 5a (MIS 5a) occurred and the population of Altai Neanderthals in Central Asia were replaced by western European Neanderthals. But even when they migrated to more temperate environments, evidence shows that they used a specific type of tool used in frozen environments, which suggested that they tried to adapt to the changing world.
These tools, classified as Micoquian tools, first appeared in central and eastern Europe around 130,000 years ago. This was a little before European Neanderthals began to replace Central Asian Neanderthal populations. They were found in habitats of woolly mammoths and woolly rhinos and are characterized by bifacial shaping, leaf shapes, and asymmetrical shapes. These suggest that the tools were specially made for hunting and foraging.
Aside from the tools, the cave also had a narrow opening, suggesting that it was used as a permanent settlement. It is also possible that Neanderthals used the cave as a temporary camp during foraging trips.
The shape of the Stajnia S5000 molar is consistent with Neanderthal teeth, and its wear suggests that it is an adult tooth. However, even more discoveries could be revealed through a genetic analysis of the soft tissue preserved inside the hard enamel.
Through genetic analysis, the archaeologists were able to date the tooth, placing it in the Marine Isotope Stage 5a or at least 80,000 years ago. This is according to Wioletta Nowaczewska of Wroclaw University and Adam Nadachowski of the Polish Academy of Sciences.
More excitingly, the analysis allowed the researchers to trace the tooth owner’s closest relatives. By analyzing the mitochondrial genome of Stajnia 5000, they found that it was closest to one of a Mezmaiskaya 1 Neanderthal from the Caucasus, according to Mateja Hajdinjak of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
Surprisingly, the DNA was also more distantly related to two other Neanderthals from Belgium and Germany around 120,000 years ago.
The molar also suggests migration as a new survival strategy, the theory of which is that the Neanderthals of northern and eastern Europe became more migratory as they chased the migratory Arctic animals across the continent. The researchers claimed that this explained how the Micoquian tools were so widespread and remained in use across regions for over 50,000 years.
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