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The site yielded more than 1,500 bone fragments, an astonishing number in a field that often celebrates the identification of a single tooth.
An unfortunate scientist named Philippe-Charles Schmerling suffered this exact humiliation when he claimed he had found an ancient human but failed to make the claim stick.
Identifying the age of this Neanderthal (‘man from the Neander Valley’) was crucial for interpreting his significance.
The skeleton had been found right around the time Charles Darwin published (1859), and its vaguely human appearance suggested it had the potential to illuminate the human past, but only if it were truly ancient.
The scientists had no evidence for how old the fossils were.
Without that information, it was very hard to know where the new species fits on the tangled human family tree, and to figure out its true meaning.