News Column

Lost collection of human fossils found

June 24, 2014



A treasure trove of important human fossils has been discovered by a team of scientists from the Natural History Museum, including Liverpool John Moores University's Dr Isabelle De Groote.

Future Ancient DNA analyses of these bones, morphological studies and further dating of the material may shed light on the exodus of modern humans from Africa and on whether the Middle East is the place where Neanderthals and modern humans met and interbred.

The collection consisted of boxes of bones discovered among the personal belongings of Sir Arthur Keith who had been the Master at Buckston Brown Farm, a research station of the Royal College of Surgeons next to Darwin’s home, Down House, Kent. After Sir Arthur Keith’s death in 1955 a number of fossils were transferred from the collections at Royal College of Surgeons to the Natural History Museum but this particular collection did not arrive until 2001. It was not until the current study was carried out that the importance of Sir Arthur Keith’s collection became clear. The study, published in Quaternary International, describes the work undertaken to identify and document the human skeletal material in the Keith Collection.

The study identified the human fossils as having come from a number of excavations directed by Dorothy Garrod in the 1920s and 1930s in what is now Israel.  Dorothy Garrod was a female pioneer, the first woman to hold an Oxbridge Chair, and led a number of excavations at key archaeological sites in the Middle East such as Shukbah, El Wad, Tabun, Skhul and Kebara Caves. She relied on Sir Arthur Keith and Theodore McCown to carry out the morphological analyses of the skeletal material she discovered. Shukbah and El Wad were the first sites excavated and yielded primarily Late Upper Palaeolithic Natufian material which was briefly described by Garrod and Keith.

The older skeletal material belonging to Neanderthals and early modern humans was described by McCown and Keith in 1939 in the iconic volume “The Stone Age of Mount Carmel”. Detailed descriptions of most of the fossil material were included in the book and were the only testament to their existence.

Dr Isabelle De Groote commented:

“We believe the collection became lost because the bombings of the Royal College of Surgeons in London made it necessary to transfer the material back to safety at Buckston Browne Farm, as well as McCown’s move to Berkeley University, USA, in 1939.

“Some of the fossils date back to a key time period where Neanderthals and modern humans may have co-existed in the Middle East and Europe. Very few early modern human fossils exist that date to the late Middle Palaeolithic and the material is therefore very significant. It has the potential to answer important questions about the dispersal of anatomically modern humans out of Africa.”

Professor Chris Stringer, co-author and Research Leader in Human Origins at the Natural History Museum, adds:

“It's sometimes possible to make important finds through careful detective work on existing collections, rather than from new excavations, and this study is a great example of that. The material in question had been stored, unrecognised, for about 50 years until it arrived at the Museum in 2001. We now know that it not only contained the lost collection of modern human fossils from Shukbah Cave - the type site of the Natufian industry in Israel - but also some more fragmentary, but equally important, fossils that may cover the period of overlap between the last Neanderthals and the first modern humans in Israel, some 50,000 years ago.”

Notes to Editors

The paper Sir Arthur Keith's Legacy: Re-discovering a lost collection of human fossils http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1040618214002717

• Find out more about the Neanderthals and our other ancient relatives at the Natural History Museum’s new exhibition: Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story open until 28 September 2014. Travel back in time and experience the dramatic story of ancient Britain, its changing landscapes and the people that lived here one million years ago. See objects unearthed from beneath our feet, many of which have never been on public display before, and come face to face with life-size Neanderthal models. For more information go to www.nhm.ac.uk/britainmillionyears

• Winner of Best of the Best in the Museums + Heritage Awards 2013, the Natural History Museum welcomes five million visitors a year. It is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise it is helping to understand and maintain the diversity of the planet, with groundbreaking partnerships in more than 70 countries. For more information go to www.nhm.ac.uk

LJMU Press Office

Clare Coombes (nÉe Doran)

Press and Publications Officer

E: c.n.doran@ljmu.ac.uk T: 0151 231 3004 M: 07929 999 460

Natural History Museum Press Office

Photography credits: Charley Coleman (all) except photograph of Keith credited to © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London .



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