Science & Environment

Human fossils from 'oldest Parisian'

Humerus
Image caption A calcified ridge on the upper-arm bone hints at injury from difficult, repetitive movements

Scientists have unearthed rare, ancient human remains in silts close to the River Seine in France.

The left arm bones are dated to about 200,000 years ago, and look to be Neanderthal - although the researchers say that with no other fossils it is impossible to make a full description.

There is little Neanderthal material of this age in northwest Europe.

"These are the oldest fossils found near Paris; it's the oldest Parisian, if you like," said Bruno Maureille.

The anthropologist and his colleagues report the discovery in the Plos One journal.

They made their find at Tourville-la-Rivière, roughly 100km from the capital.

Not much can be said about the individual because it is represented solely by the three long bones of the arm - the humerus, ulna and radius.

Their robustness would support a Neanderthal interpretation, says the team, and they could have come from a juvenile or young adult.

One interesting observation is a raised crest, or ridge, on the upper-arm bone that may be the result of muscle damage at the shoulder.

The team speculates in its paper that the individual might have been hurt by repeatedly throwing something.

The scarring looks very similar to what has been documented in professional throwing athletes.

"We have a particular morphology on the humerus where we have this very important crest that is related probably to a specific movement - a specific movement that has been repeated by this individual," Dr Maureille told the BBC.

"Right at that point, we have a kind of micro-trauma, which could be related to a movement that is more difficult, and it has created this strange relief."

Quite what that repetitive movement might have been is open to debate.

"If the evidence for the strong development of the deltoid region on the humerus has been interpreted correctly, this could provide an important clue that thrown spears were already in use in Europe about 200,000 years ago, something which many experts have questioned," commented Chris Stringer from the Natural History Museum in London.

"There has been a widespread view that Neanderthals and earlier humans were reliant on thrusting spears, used for dangerous close-range confrontational hunting, and that only modern humans perfected launched projectiles - that view could now be questioned."

A possible alternative explanation might be the repetitive rubbing of animal skins to soften them.

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

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