A new look at the Gibraltar Neanderthals

Modern DNA sequencing techniques are allowing us to discover more about some iconic Neanderthal skulls than ever before.

A new look at the Gibraltar Neanderthals
The adult female Neanderthal cranium discovered at Forbes Quarry, Gibraltar
[Credit: Natural History Museum]

Two skulls from Gibraltar were among the first Neanderthal remains ever found, and have since become some of the best-studied human fossils in the world.

One was found at Forbes’ Quarry in 1848, and one at a site called Devil’s Tower in 1926.

Despite their fame, there are many remaining uncertainties about the two partial skulls, including their geological age and their relationship to other European Neanderthals.

It was long thought that little DNA analysis could be done on the two skulls, since they had been preserved in unfavourable conditions for many years, and because present-day human DNA has contaminated them.

But ancient DNA has finally been extracted from these fossils, in a collaboration led by the Natural History Museum in London and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig,

We now know the sex of both the individuals as well as details about how one of them could be linked to Neanderthal relatives beyond Gibraltar.

The Forbes’ Quarry Neanderthal

The Forbes’ Quarry skull (pictured above) was the first adult Neanderthal ever discovered, and it is one of the most precious specimens in the Museum collections. It is also known as Gibraltar 1.

A new look at the Gibraltar Neanderthals
A three-quarter view of the Forbes’ Quarry Neanderthal, which is held in the Museum collection
[Credit: Natural History Museum]

It was found in the northern end of the Rock of Gibraltar in 1848, and presented to the Gibraltar Scientific Society by Lieutenant Edmund Flint on 3 March of that year.  This was eight years before the Neanderthal type specimen was discovered in the Neander Valley in Germany.

The skull came to Britain in 1864, where Charles Darwin recorded that he examined it, and it was donated to the Royal College of Surgeons in London four years later. It was transferred to the Natural History Museum in the 1950s.

The Museum’s Prof Chris Stringer, an expert on human evolution, says, ‘It has long been recognised as one of the most important Neanderthal fossils, the first one showing the typical Neanderthal facial shape, dominated by a projecting midface and nose.’

The Devil’s Tower child

Further Neanderthal discoveries were made nearby in the 1910s and 1920s. The Devil’s Tower specimen (also known as Gibraltar 2 and pictured above) is part of a Neanderthal child’s skull. It was found in 1926 by a team led by the archaeologist Dorothy Garrod.

A new look at the Gibraltar Neanderthals
The Devil’s Tower child skull [Credit: Guérin Nicolas/WikiCommons]

The Devil’s Tower site is at a rock shelter not far from Forbes’ Quarry where the skull was recovered alongside animal remains and stone tools.

The Neanderthal remains consist of parts of the jaws and parts of the braincase, and its teeth show that the child was probably about four or five years old when they died.

In 1928 the Trustees of the Percy Sladen Fund presented the remains to the Museum.

Modern DNA techniques

Studying ancient human remains can be difficult because they are easily contaminated by modern human DNA.

A new look at the Gibraltar Neanderthals
The Devils Tower Neanderthal child fossil in pieces
[Credit: Natural History Museum]

To investigate DNA preservation in these Neanderthal remains, Lukas Bokelmann and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology analysed bone powder from the base of each of the skulls.

They used a preparation method that reduces modern contamination before sequencing, to isolate the Neanderthal DNA.

Analyses confirmed that the Devil’s Tower child was male, and the Forbes’ Quarry adult was female. The researchers also found that the adult was genetically more similar to earlier (60,000- to 120,000-year-old) Neanderthals in Europe and western Asia than to younger Neanderthal remains from Spain.

So although Gibraltar is often considered as one of the last refugia of the Neanderthals, the Forbes’ Quarry fossil appears from its DNA to be an earlier example.

Prof Stringer adds, ‘These results show that it’s now possible to analyse DNA in highly contaminated fossils from relatively warm climates.

‘It holds out promise for the recovery of comparably ancient DNA from regions such as North Africa, the Middle East and China.’

The findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Author: Katie Pavid | Source: Natural History Museum [July 16, 2019]



Remember the Women Who Made #Apollo50th Possible

As the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of the historic Moon landing, we remember some of the women whose hard work and ingenuity made it possible. The women featured here represent just a small fraction of the enormous contributions made by women during the Apollo era. 

Margaret Hamilton, Computer Programmer


Margaret Hamilton led the team that developed the building blocks of software engineering — a term that she coined herself. Her systems approach to the Apollo software development and insistence on rigorous testing was critical to the success of Apollo. In fact, the Apollo guidance software was so robust that no software bugs were found on any crewed Apollo missions, and it was adapted for use in Skylab, the Space Shuttle and the first digital fly-by-wire systems in aircraft.

In this photo, Hamilton stands next to a stack of Apollo Guidance Computer source code. As she noted, “There was no second chance. We all knew that.”

Katherine Johnson, Aerospace Technologist


As a very young girl, Katherine Johnson loved to count things. She counted everything, from the number of steps she took to get to the road to the number of forks and plates she washed when doing the dishes.

As an adult, Johnson became a “human computer” for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which in 1958, became NASA. Her calculations were crucial to syncing Apollo’s Lunar Lander with the Moon-orbiting Command and Service Module. “I went to work every day for 33 years happy. Never did I get up and say I don’t want to go to work.“

Judy Sullivan, Biomedical Engineer


This fabulous flip belongs to biomedical engineer Judy Sullivan, who monitored the vital signs of the Apollo 11 astronauts throughout their spaceflight training via small sensors attached to their bodies. On July 16, 1969, she was the only woman in the suit lab as the team helped Neil Armstrong suit up for launch.

Sullivan appeared on the game show “To Tell the Truth,” in which a celebrity panel had to guess which of the female contestants was a biomedical engineer. Her choice to wear a short, ruffled skirt stumped everyone and won her a $500 prize. In this photo, Sullivan monitors a console during a training exercise for the first lunar landing mission.

Billie Robertson, Mathematician


Billie Robertson, pictured here in 1972 running a real-time go-no-go simulation for the Apollo 17 mission, originally intended to become a math teacher. Instead, she worked with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, which later became rolled into NASA. She created the manual for running computer models that were used to simulate launches for the Apollo, Skylab and Apollo Soyuz Test Project programs. 

Robertson regularly visited local schools over the course of her career, empowering young women to pursue careers in STEM and aerospace.

Mary Jackson, Aeronautical Engineer


In 1958, Mary Jackson became NASA’s first African-American female engineer. Her engineering specialty was the extremely complex field of boundary layer effects on aerospace vehicles at supersonic speeds.

In the 1970s, Jackson helped the students at Hampton’s King Street Community center build their own wind tunnel and use it to conduct experiments. “We have to do something like this to get them interested in science,” she said for the local newspaper. “Sometimes they are not aware of the number of black scientists, and don’t even know of the career opportunities until it is too late.”

Ethel Heinecke Bauer, Aerospace Engineer


After watching the launch of Sputnik in October 1957, Ethel Heinecke Bauer changed her major to mathematics. Over her 32 years at NASA, she worked at two different centers in mathematics, aerospace engineering, development and more. 

Bauer planned the lunar trajectories for the Apollo program including the ‘free return’ trajectory which allowed for a safe return in the event of a systems failure  — a trajectory used on Apollo 13, as well as the first three Apollo flights to the Moon. In the above photo, Bauer works on trajectories with the help of an orbital model.

Follow Women@NASA for more stories like this one, and make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com.

Roman coin stash ‘may have been linked to Boudiccan revolt’

A hoard of Roman coins found in a field may have been hidden there during the Boudiccan revolt, an expert has said. The trove of 60 denarii, dating between 153BC and AD60-61, was found in a field near Cookley, in Suffolk, by a metal detectorist.

Roman coin stash 'may have been linked to Boudiccan revolt'
The coins dated between 153BC and AD61 [Credit: Suffolk County Council]

Dr Anna Booth, who examined the find, said there «might be a link with the Boudiccan revolt» and the coins. Queen Boudicca led the Iceni tribe against the Romans in AD61 which led to the destruction of Colchester.
Most of the coins dated from the Republic era, pre-27BC, but there were also denarii minted during the reigns of emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula and Nero.

Dr Booth said: «This hoard is interesting because the latest coin dated to the reign of Nero in AD60-61. The final coin is often an indication of when a hoard is likely to have been deposited. There might be a link with the Boudiccan revolt which took place in AD61 in this region.»

Roman coin stash 'may have been linked to Boudiccan revolt'
The coins may have been buried to hide them during the Boudiccan revolt, an expert said
[Credit: Suffolk County Council]

She added: «It was quite a tumultuous time in East Anglia. There does seem to be a slight increase in hoarding in this period. It is a stretch of the imagination, we are not 100% sure, but in this region it is tempting to say this is because of what was happening in this period.»
Thousands died during Boudicca’s revolt across East Anglia after she united local tribes against the Roman rulers. Colchester, then the capital of Roman Britain, London and St Albans were all destroyed before she was defeated.

The find, from August 2018, was made up of 58 solid silver coins, two of which were silver-plated copies. Senior coroner Nigel Parsley declared it to be treasure at an inquest in Ipswich.

Source: BBC News Website [July 16, 2019]