York researchers help to solve important archaeological dispute

Photo credit: www.yorksciencepark.co.uk
Photo credit: www.yorksciencepark.co.uk
Photo credit: www.yorksciencepark.co.uk

Researchers from the University of York have been instrumental in solving a fascinating archaeological mystery: confirming that bone fragments discovered in Châtelperron, France, date back to Neanderthal times. This knowledge evinces that the Neanderthals were capable of producing tools and artefacts, which some academics had previously asserted were solely within the cognitive capabilities of modern humans.

The international research project was led by the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, and utilised protein analysis to determine whether the hominin remains, found in the Grotte du Renne, an archaeological site in Arcy-sur-Cure, France, were of Neanderthal or modern origin. Protein analysis is part of the larger scientific field of proteomics, which employs a range of pioneering technologies to isolate and study proteins, which comprise a vital part of all living organisms. Other uses of the technology include mass spectrometry and protein chips.

The team used peptide mass fingerprinting and radiocarbon dating to ascertain that the remains displayed a direct association to Neanderthal ancestry. Such discoveries help to solve crucial questions regarding the brain function of Neanderthals and how they eventually came to be replaced by modern humans.

Professor Matthew Collins, Director of BioArCh at the University of York’s Department of Archaeology and co-author of the paper, said:

“For the first time, this research demonstrates the effectiveness of recent developments in ancient protein amino acid analysis and radiocarbon dating to discriminate between Late Pleistocene clades. To identify proteins related to specific developmental stages of bone formation highlights one of the main strengths of this new analysis, especially in a multi-disciplinary context. These methods open up new avenues of research throughout Late Pleistocene contexts in which hominin remains are scarce and where the biological nature of remains is unclear due to ancient DNA not being preserved. This represents a significant advance in palaeoproteomic phylogenetics and is of direct relevance to our understanding of hominin evolution.”

Professor Hublin, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, added:

“The process of replacement of archaic local populations by modern humans in Eurasia is still poorly understood, as the makers of many palaeolithic tool-kits of this time period remain unknown. This type of research now allows us to extract unrecognisable human fragments out of large archaeological assemblages and to revisit the mode and the tempo of this major event in human evolution with fresh material.”

The extensive team also consisted of researchers from the University of Oxford, The Natural History Museum and Bournemouth University.

The BioArch facility for bioarchaeology at the University of York is located within the Biology department on the Heslington West campus and involves collaborative research between the Biology, Archaeology and Chemistry departments.