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Unearthing the Neanderthal, digitally

BioPhotonics
Aug 2006
Susannah J. Veith

Some 30,000 years ago, people of the species known as Neanderthal inexplicably vanished from their habitat in Europe. Their much-debated legacy is survived by fossilized remains, of which the first were discovered in the Neander valley near Düsseldorf, Germany, 150 years ago. After this initial finding, numerous relics have been unearthed throughout Europe.


The upper and lower jaws of this Neanderthal skull from the Roc de Marsal infant skeleton of Dordogne preserve 20 erupted milk teeth and 21 unerupted permanent crowns under development. Images by R. Macchiarelli, A. Mazurier and V. Volpato.


Seeking to answer questions regarding the origin of modern humans as well as the strange disappearance of the Neanderthals, scientists are itching to study and analyze these rare remnants. Such research, however, is time-consuming, requiring extensive travel because skulls, teeth, tools and artifacts are scattered throughout European museums. Furthermore, repeated analyses of original fossil specimens could eventually lead to irreparable damage.

But now The Neanderthal Tools (TNT), a combined research and technological development project of eight European partners from four European Union member states and Croatia, has integrated the Europe-wide collections of Neanderthal remains into one digitally accessible repository.


This 45.5-mm resolution scan of a mandible from the Regourdou 1 Neanderthal adult skeleton shows the morphology of the tooth pulp chambers and of the dental roots, as well as details of the inner spongy bone.


A significant outcome of the project is the creation of Nespos, the Neanderthal Studies Professional Online Service. This fully interactive inventory and catalog of the Neanderthal heritage guarantees its virtual immortality through digital preparation and virtual archaeology tools.

Researchers took advantage of a variety of noninvasive technologies to save the bone and dental remains of the Neanderthal. They used x-ray CT to acquire high-resolution scans of specimen. But to ensure the highest spatial resolution and the most beneficial signal-to-noise ratio in the analysis of bony material, a research team from the University of Poitiers, France, led by Dr. Roberto Macchiarelli, president of the Nespos society, employed synchrotron radiation micro-CT. Compared with conventional x-ray CT, the latter technique is characterized by continuous energy spectrum, high photon flux, intense monochromatic x-ray beam, parallel projections and small angular size.


A synchroton radiation microtomographic-based 3-D reconstruction depicts the first lumbar vertebra from the Regourdou 1 Neanderthal adult skeleton from Dordogne, France. The vertebra, which is a rare specimen in the fossil record because of its fragility, preserves structural details that provide evidence of the individual’s age at death.


The technique is, according to the researchers, the most effective nondestructive investigative tool available to depict structural morphology and textural properties of bone, even of relatively large and highly mineralized fossil specimens such as those of the Neanderthal. The research team performed virtual 3-D reconstructions of specimens at the beamline ID 17 set at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France.


At left, the original 3-D volumes of a lower milk molar from Neanderthal remains at the Abri Suard site in Charente, France, have been segmented to separate the crown from the roots. At right, the transparency shows the enamel thickness variation, pulp chamber and root canals (in green).


Nespos now contains a compilation of 3-D scans of Neanderthal fossils and artifacts as well as scientific data, which cover a major part of excavation sites and objects from collections of cooperating museums. The network also features a Wiki-based collaboration platform that invites the scientific community to contribute its own results. The database — at www.nespos.org — is available to scientists, professionals, teachers and students for research and educational purposes.


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