The Neanderthal from Altamura: On the Shoulders of the Past
The human skeleton found in 1993 in a cave near Altamura (Bari, Puglia), is the oldest and most complete Neanderthal ever discovered, and continues to reveal surprising novelties. This is the so-called "man of Altamura", recently dated to about 150 thousand years, which for more than a decade has been the object of the most detailed and technologically advanced paleoanthropological research carried out in Italy on a single prehistoric specimen. The research is at present supported by the MiUR as a PRIN project (2017-2019).
In a research published in the international and interdisciplinary journal Quaternary Science Reviews, the scientific team led by Giorgio Manzi of Sapienza University of Rome - in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Florence and Duke University (Carolina, USA) - using sophisticated digital techniques , was able to reconstruct the right shoulder blade of the man of Altamura from 3 bone fragments extracted between 2009 and 2015 from the cave (the only ones taken to date).
The analysis revealed something unexpected compared to the morphology of the last glacial Neanderthals, the so-called "classics" (which are more recent about one hundred thousand years compared to the man of Altamura) and also compared to their ancestors of the Middle Pleistocene.
"It has always been known from specialist literature - explains Giorgio Manzi of the Department of Environmental Biology of Sapienza, head of the research team and the PRIN project - that there is a small, but significant difference between Neanderthals and us Homo sapiens in the disposition of muscles that allow the arm to rotate relative to the shoulder: a narrow inflection, called the axillary sulcus, which runs along the lateral edge of the scapula." The axillary groove is positioned in the Neanderthals dorsally, while in modern men it has a mainly ventral pattern. For a long time it has been investigated on this feature, passing from a mainly functionalist interpretation (some athletes tend to have shoulder similar to those of Neanderthals) up to those based on genetic differences.
"Now - continues Manzi - Altamura's scapula, reconstructed with three-dimensional imaging techniques, modifies this consolidated framework of knowledge. The positioning of the axillary sulcus in Altamura man shows a nearly unique condition among the Neanderthals, but also differs sharply from the modern morphology, having an intermediate condition (bisolcated) to eminent ventral orientation."
"This confirms - adds Fabio Di Vincenzo, the first author of the study - that the Neanderthals had, at the beginning of their existence as a species, a much greater variability than that found in the more recent and classic phases, which are also close to their extinction, which occurred around 40 thousand years ago." In addition, the researchers highlighted how the Scapula of Altamura shows affinities with other ancient Neanderthals (non "classics") that were found more than a century ago in a place in Croatia called Krapina. It is a similarity that can be explained by genetic exchanges between Neanderthal populations distributed on those that today are the two shores of the Adriatic Sea.
"If an anatomical detail - concludes Di Vincenzo - has revealed such surprising features compared to what we know today on Neanderthals, it is not difficult to imagine how equally surprising information can come when it is possible to study the whole skeleton in depth".
Distinct among Neanderthals: The scapula of the skeleton from Altamura, Italy - F. Di Vincenzo, S.E. Churchill, C. Buzi, A. Profico, M.A. Tafuri, M. Micheli, D. Caramelli, G. Manzi - Quaternary Science Reviews, 2018 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quascirev.2018.11.023
Fabio Di Vincenzo