A team of Polish scientists said Monday they have discovered three Neanderthal teeth in a cave, a find they hope may shed light on how similar to modern humans our evolutionary cousins were.
Neanderthal artifacts have been unearthed in Poland before. But the teeth are the first bodily Neanderthal remains found in the country, according to Mikolaj Urbanowski, an archeologist with Szczecin University and the project's lead researcher.
Urbanowski said the teeth were unearthed in the Stajnia Cave, north of the Carpathian Mountains, along with flint tools and the bones of the woolly mammoth and the woolly rhinoceros, both extinct Ice Age species.
The researchers also found a hammer made of reindeer antler and bones of cave bears bearing cut marks, indicating they were eaten by the Neanderthals, Urbanowski said.
"The cave bears were big, dangerous animals and this supports the view the Neanderthals were really efficient hunters," he said.
The findings were reported by the German science journal Naturwissenschaften in an online article dated Jan. 28.
The article focused mainly on one of the teeth, providing evidence for the claim that it is the molar of a Neanderthal who died around age 20.
Urbanowski said that tooth has undergone the most analysis but the team is nearly certain the other two also belonged to Neanderthals who lived 100,000 to 80,000 years ago.
The placement of the teeth along with flint tools has led the team to hypothesize that the location could have been some kind of primitive burial site, which would point to a belief in the afterlife.
Jeffrey Schwartz, a professor of physical anthropology with the University of Pittsburgh, said the find is significant because it establishes that Neanderthals lived in a region where so far little evidence has been found. However, he said there is not enough evidence at this point to draw any conclusions about a possible burial site.
"No one ceremoniously buries one human tooth," said Schwartz, who was not involved in the research, but reviewed an early version of the paper.