Two men brought together by an ancient ancestor

Two men brought together by an ancient ancestor

28th July 2008, Comments 0 comments

Thousands of years of evolution and cultural development my have seen the earth transformed, but two German men have stayed close to home

For the first time, German scientists have used genetic fingerprinting technology to prove that residents of a modern-day village are the direct descendants of a caveman who lived in the same hilly region 3,000 years ago.

German scientists from the University of Goettingen matched a DNA sample from the bones of a skeleton found in a cave in the Harz Mountains of central Germany to two middle-aged men in the nearby village of Nienstedt.

The two men, Manfred Huchthausen, a 58-year-old teacher, and Uwe Lange, a 48-year-old surveyor, were only casual acquaintances until scientists told them they were in fact family relatives and direct descendants of a man who lived more than 120 generations ago.

Totally unaware

"We used to play in these caves as children," says Lange. "I don't think I would have set foot in them, if I had known that my great-great-great whatever ancestor was buried there."

In fact, 40 paleolithic skeletons were discovered along with crude implements and ritual funereal items in the cave, part of a labyrinth of caverns and fissures in the Harz Mountains near the town of Osterode. The rugged peaks, misty valleys and dense forests of the Harz Mountains are the setting for many of the classic German fairytales collected by the Brothers Grimm in the 19th Century.

Until recent years, it was thought that the inhospitable terrain had prevented human habitation until only about 1,000 years ago. But researchers from Goettingen University discovered dozens of skeletons in the Osterode cave complex in 1980. Carbon-dating proved that the remains were 3,000 years old.

Calcium coated treasure chest

Some of the skeletons were covered in calcium deposits created through centuries of water dripping from stalactites. The calcium deposits miraculously preserved the bones' molecular structure, according to anthropologist Susanne Hummel.

Last year, Dr Hummel was able to extract usable genetic material from the jawbone and molars of an adult male's remains.

"It was incredible good luck," Hummel says. "The genetic material was as fresh as three-day old blood or semen specimens which forensic scientists collect at crime scenes."

Public participation

Hummel's team of researchers issued a public appeal for volunteers among long-time residents of the area. Some 300 local people came forward and agreed to have the researchers use cotton swabs to collect genetic samples from oral mucous membranes.

"Sure enough, we found two positive matches," Hummel says. "They matched up 100 per cent positive. The results would stand up in a court of law in a paternity case."

Lange and Huchthausen have become local celebrities and photos of them posing next to a wax figure made from the skull of their ancient ancestor have been published in every newspaper in Germany.

Family resemblance

"He does look a bit like me," Huchthausen said of the wax dummy which is on exhibit at the local Lichtenstein Caverns Museum and Gift Shop. The actual caverns are too dangerous to enter. But the museum offers a mock-up of the cave site replete with replica cave dwellers.

When the human remains were first discovered in 1980, it was theorized that the cave dwellers might have been cannibals or at least have engaged in human sacrificial rites. It was assumed that the sacrificial victims' bodies had been interred together.

But Hummel's genetic DNA testing revealed that most if not all of the remains were related by blood.

"It is clear that this was a sort of family crypt, perhaps for some clan chieftain and his extended family," Hummel says. "They were buried together because they belonged together, not because they were the victims of some sacrificial rite."

Countless descendants

Huchthausen and Lange recently held a family reunion and Lange says, "I have to admit that I do now see a family resemblance."

Hummel says she is certain that if the genetic testing were expanded to a larger sample, there would be countless thousands of descendants, scattered possibly around the world.

"It was only a fluke of good fortune that we found two bloodlines which had never strayed very far from this cave which was their ancestral home."

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