An ancient composite image of a man or woman. (Stefan Dierkes/Wikimedia Commons)

Cold, dark Arctic winter and sun rising far away in the sky — the best trick a scientist can play is to string together hundreds of photographs until a little ghost emerges from the blur. Turns out, that was what a team of scientists did when they captured a cluster of pale brown, hairless beaked skeletons (pictured above) in the permafrost of Svalbard, in the high north of Norway.

The grisly discovery is the work of a team led by Dr. Donald Still and Dr. Eric Rich, an anthropologist at Duke University, who set out in April 2017 to investigate a paper from the International Icebreaker Association that argued that bones or hair that had previously been reported as having come from some stranger body than known were from the recently discovered human remains that had been unearthed in Svalbard in 2009. Back then, the remains were attributed to some villagers who had drowned in 1937. They were located by a group of satellites doing work in the area, but the discovery wasn’t widely publicized because the group didn’t want to alter the theory that the bones were discovered at sea.

However, in 2018, the group was working with the international Icebreaker Association’s research vessel, Nansen, and noticed that a cluster of teeth that had been reported to have come from a person who’d drowned in 1937 also matched a pair of bone samples that had been found in the permafrost of the region.

The combination of the two helped to get the scientists to the conclusion they were looking for. “Overall, we think these teeth and skull pieces belong to a primitive, young adult—around the age when humans first started moving out of Africa, around 300,000 years ago,” Dr. Still told New Scientist. “Sometime after then, their teeth were broken away from the skull,” he added. “That is how we got this older, totally unrelated version of the same population that was living in the ice floe.”

Dr. Still and his team are now trawling through an extensive set of cave drawings found across the globe to look for more clues, but they’ve already gleaned enough information to solidify what they know. The group is also contemplating DNA samples from the skull, that could help them search for the last remnants of a species that lived around 400,000 years ago in the Arctic.

“We are holding out hope that we will one day find and uncover the genetic traces of the earliest humans in the Western Hemisphere,” Dr. Still said.

Read the full story at New Scientist.


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