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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 December 2006, 09:23 GMT
New scan of 'Neanderthal' jawbone
Kents Cavern mandible (Image: Torquay Museum)
The bone became known as "Kents Cavern 4". (Image: Torquay Museum)
A piece of jawbone found in a Devon cave is being re-examined by scientists who believe it may be Britain's first direct evidence of Neanderthal man.

The bone was excavated from Kents Cavern in Torquay in 1927 and was thought to be about 31,000 years old.

But more research showed the Torquay Museum piece could be 40,000 years old.

A computer scan is to be carried out to determine if the bone was put back together correctly after it was found, and to see if DNA can be extracted.

It hasn't been looked after as carefully as it could have been back in the 1930s
Nick Powe, Kents Cavern

The fragment of maxilla (upper jaw) containing three teeth was unearthed during an excavation by the Torquay Natural History Society.

Radiocarbon dating in the 1980s of Kents Cavern 4, as it became known, showed its age to be about 31,000 years old.

That age was placed in doubt after it was found the bone had been strengthened with paper glue, probably after it was excavated.

But more recent radiocarbon dates for animal bones in cave sediments where the jaw was found, indicate the layer it was in dates between 37,000 and 40,000 years ago.

Now a scan taking six hours will allow a three-dimensional computer model to be created.

'Distinct DNA'

This will be used to establish whether the jawbone and teeth were put back together correctly when first found and to see if DNA can be extracted.

Nick Powe from Kents Cavern said: "Neanderthal DNA is quite distinct, and if researchers can find enough DNA in a tooth they will be able to establish if it is Neanderthal.

"But it was found in 1927 and hasn't been looked after as carefully as it could have been back in the 1930s.

"The danger is that some of the processes that were used to reconstruct it for display purposes may have damaged it and DNA cannot be taken out of it."

If the jawbone is found to be Neanderthal, it would be evidence that Neanderthals spread across Europe and reached Britain far earlier than is currently thought.

Jawbone hints at earliest Britons
27 Apr 05 |  Science/Nature
Experts put date to UK rock art
25 Apr 05 |  Bristol/Somerset
The icy truth behind Neanderthals
10 Feb 05 |  Science/Nature

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