Thursday, August 25, 2011

170,000 year-old human skull fragment found at Lazaret

A couple of weeks ago (Aug. 13, to be precise), part of a hominin frontal skull fragment was found during excavations at Grotte du Lazaret, near Nice, France. The find was first reported in a series of French media outlets, but it wasn't removed until just a couple of days ago, after it was apparently given time to dry, as reported in the first English-language report I've seen about the find. Based on the presence of incompletely fused suture, M.A. de Lumley is quoted as saying the skull fragment belongs to an individual who died around 25 years of age.

The skull fragment in situ. Image from
The level in which the skull was found is described as dating to ca. 170,000BP. While the dates at Lazaret are a little bit fuzzy (see the variability and reversals in the sequence reported in Michel et al . 2008), while the level in which the cranium fragment was found is not mentioned in the reports, an age like that places it in OIS 6, which is consistent with what it known at the cave. The intriguing aspect of the report is that the skull is described as belonging to a H. erectus individual. Taxonomically, in my book at least, Europe around that time was peopled by Neanderthals, which makes a H. erectus attribution all the more intriguing. Of course, it may have to do with differences in nomenclature, whereby some researchers don't recognize H. heidelbergensis as a valid taxon, preferring to lump everything that preceded Neanderthals into the H. erectus category. Of course, the Michel (2008) paper still uses the term 'anteneanderthal' to describe the fossils found at the site, so that might have something to do with it. Still, given the recent history of human paleontological research in Europe, that's certainly a view that stands out as a bit odd. That's doubly true if you consider that 'classic' looking Mousterian assemblages such as that from Lazaret are known from throughout the continent at that time, and are often assumed to be the handiwork of Neanderthals. In any case, it'll be really interesting to see where this specimen falls, morphologically speaking, once it (and its context) are published fully. Whatever the case may be, it's certainly a very significant addition to the fossil record of the Middle/Late Pleistocene of the northern Mediterranean.


Michel, V., Shen, G., Valensi, P., & de Lumley, H. (2009). ESR dating of dental enamel from Middle Palaeolithic levels at Lazaret Cave, France Quaternary Geochronology, 4 (3), 233-240 DOI: 10.1016/j.quageo.2008.07.003


Camarchgrad said...

It's very interesting, this article touches on the taxonomic uncertainty quite unintentionally.

I guess I fall in the H. Heidelbergensis camp via H antessesor, so I'd like to know on what criteria they made the H erectus attribution. If it truly falls closer to the east Asian clade, that would upended a few decades of paleoanthropological thinking. But I have a feeling that it will find a home in neandertal/heidelbergensis somewhere.

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

thanks for the comment. I agree with you that this is very likely to fall within the heidelbergensis range of variation, and that the use of H. erectus in this report is maybe slightly outdated terminology. In any case, now we must wait to see an actual analysis of the thing before we can know either way.