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Fossils used in human evolution study 'of dubious origin' argue archaeologists

A group of archaeologists have published a letter discrediting the claim that the site of Untermassfeld was home to hominids a million years ago.

Fossils used in human evolution study 'of dubious origin' argue archaeologists
The Untermassfeld site in Germany has yielded more than 14,000 large animal fossils dating from 
between 900,000 and 1.2 million years ago [Credit: Marc Steinmetz]
Published on the bioRXiv. org biology website on October 31st, the letter claims that "at least one stolen bone" and "other materials of dubious origin" question the latest research on the first human occupations in Europe.

The researchers specifically question three documents - published in 2013, 2016 and 2017 - and believe that "the right questions" were not asked. They also reject the conclusion that the German site of Untermassfeld, known for its abundant animal remains, was also home to hominids 1 million years ago.

Untermassfeld, located about 150 kilometres northeast of Frankfurt, has produced more than 14,000 fossils of large animals from 900,000 to 1.2 million years ago and is the largest and most complete record of wildlife at that time in northern Europe. The excavations which began in the late 1970s had found no hominid bones or signs of occupation.

"Between 600,000 and 700,000 years ago, Acheulean artefacts (a lithic industry originated in the Lower Palaeolithic period) appeared in Europe, and a little later (about 500,000 years ago) the presence of hominids, ancestral relatives of humans, seemed to increase," archaeologists said.

Fossils used in human evolution study 'of dubious origin' argue archaeologists
Researchers excavating at Untermassfeld allege that part of a deer bone protruding from the sediment on 28 May 2009 
(in box, left) had disappeared several days late [Credit: Ralf-Dietrich Kahlke]
Among the writers of the letter is palaeontologist Ralf-Dietrich Kahlke, who leads the excavations in Untermassfeld. In the text the authors describe repeated disappearances of bones from this archaeological site as well as fossils delivered in anonymous packages, according to Nature.

The authors of all three studies, however, reject allegations that some of the pieces were stolen.

The first claims that hominids lived near Untermassfeld more than one million years ago were made in 2013. And in 2017 an additional bone analysis was published.

However, says Kahlke, there is no data linking the co-authors of these studies to fossil record material.

"The documents suggest that Untermassfeld has provided stone tools and cut-marks on the animal bones, evidence of a presence of hominids one million years ago in continental European latitudes. But we have shown that these studies are very flawed as to the origin of the materials studied and the interpretation of the remains," explain the authors of the letter published on bioRXiv. org.

Fossils used in human evolution study 'of dubious origin' argue archaeologists
An anonymous package sent to a museum in Schleusingen contained a deer bone fragment
 (lower bone), which appears to match a fragment left behind (upper bone) after a theft from
 the Untermassfeld site in 2009. (The fragments are shown pieced together in the 
view on the far-right) [Ralf-Dietrich Kahlke]
The fossil that most makes these archaeologists suspicious is a bone fragment of an extinct deer species referred to in 2016. Ralf-Dietrich Kahlke notes that this piece appears to match a piece of a deer skeleton that thieves allegedly broke from a larger chunk of sediment at Untermassfeld, leaving part of the bone behind. The same doubts have appeared with part of the tip of a rhinoceros and a deer bone.

Kahlke and the other archaeologists analyzed the 'new' material and concluded that it is not compatible with an occupation of hominids in Untermassfeld. They argue that the alleged cut marks on animal bones were probably caused by rodents or other animals.

Source: La Vanguardia [November 22, 2017]

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