The unlikely mandible

24 April 2013 by Kerstin Hoppenhaus, posted in Genetics, Human Evolution

In humans, the mandible forms the lower jaw and holds the lower teeth in place. It goes by the beautifully oldfashioned name "Kinnlade" in German. And it has the power to make a person's eyes light up. Even half a mandible does that. Even the plastic copy of half a mandible does.

Today, I sat around such a copy with five people from very different walks of life who are determined to get this mandible to talk. For these people, this is not just an old bone (or its carefully 3D-printed copy). For them, this mandible is a portal into an ancient world. A portal that doesn't open easily. One that they have only just begun to unclose, a narrow slit, just wide enough to catch a glimpse at a world we still know very little about. The world that made us who we are.

The mandible comes from an unlikely place. For decades, this part of central Asia was deemed beyond the range of the Neanderthals, and it was only in 2007 that this idea had to be dismissed, when DNA analyses proved the Neanderthal identity of some hominid remains found in Uzbekistan and in the Altai region of southern Siberia.

How they lived, what they ate, what their environment looked like - all this and more may still be written into this piece of bone. For the coming weeks, I will accompany the five in their efforts to draw what information they can from their reticent source. It may be not much. Or they may find the clues to push the portal wide open.

 

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