Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Recent human remains misidentified as Neanderthal


3D scan of a molar originally attributed
to a Neanderthal.
Credit: Stefano Benazzi.  Image Source.
Old bones are getting younger!

In the 1980s, a finger bone and a couple teeth were found in a cave in Italy and were classified as Neanderthal remains, dated at 30,000 years old.  Recently, however, reanalysis of one of the teeth has revealed that they may actually have belonged to humans from the 15th or 16th century.

The recent analysis included geometric analysis of detailed computer scans, mitochondrial DNA sequencing, and carbon dating.  All three of these methods support the new interpretation that the tooth was not of Neanderthal origin but from a medieval Italian.  The news article does not specify the gender of the individual.

Unfortunately, the scientific publication in which these results are reported has not yet been printed and is only accessible by subscription.  Therefore, I cannot elaborate on some of the details of the study.  However, one should not be quick to criticize the anthropological community for their confidence in a mistaken identity.  I do not know how certain the original discoverers of the remains were of their classification, and the exact techniques used to date the specimens are unclear.  The news release does indicate that the dating and identification relied strongly on the rock layer in which the bones were found, but that the geology appears to have been disturbed during the middle ages when a wall was built to seal off the cave.

Nevertheless, this series of events does reveal some of the assumptions and interpretive techniques inherent in studies of the past.  Though their confidence is unknown, the original discoverers of the remains labelled them as Neanderthal based not on morphological evidence, but on assumed age of the surrounding sediment.  This flimsy reasoning echoes the "giant bird" tracks mentioned in a previous article and is a symptom of the reinforcement syndrome.

Internet commenters have claimed that this news release only reinforces the strength of the scientific community, emphasizing that science is always willing to and does correct itself.  While the self-correcting nature of science may be true to an extent, it is not reason to consider science to be the standard of truth.  In fact, the need for self-correcting must necessarily imply that science is frequently wrong.  This is not to say that science is not a useful tool for investigating truth, but it is not the only one, and we should be cautious about inserting our own perceptions into the reported facts.

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