A team of Polish scientists say they have discovered three Neanderthal teeth in a cave in the southern part of the country.
updated 2/1/2010 1:00:45 PM ET 2010-02-01T18:00:45

A team of Polish scientists said Monday they have discovered three Neanderthal teeth in a cave, a find they hope may shed light on how similar to modern humans our ancestors were.

Neanderthal artifacts have been unearthed in Poland before. But the teeth are the first bodily Neanderthal remains found in the country, according to Mikolaj Urbanowski, an archaeologist with Szczecin University and the project's lead researcher.

Urbanowski said the teeth were unearthed in the Stajna Cave, north of the Carpathian Mountains, along with flint tools and the bones of the woolly mammoth and the woolly rhinoceros, both extinct Ice Age species.

The researchers also found a hammer made of reindeer antler and bones of cave bears bearing cut marks, indicating they were eaten by the Neanderthals, Urbanowski said.

"The cave bears were big, dangerous animals and this supports the view the Neanderthals were really efficient hunters," he said.

The findings were reported by the German science journal Naturwissenschaften in an online article dated Jan. 28.

The article focused mainly on one of teeth, providing evidence for the claim that it is from a Neanderthal about 20 years old at the time of death.

Urbanowski said that tooth has undergone the most analysis but the team is nearly certain the other two along also belonged to Neanderthals who lived 100,000 to 80,000 years ago.

The placement of the teeth along with flint tools has led the team to hypothesize that the site could have been some kind of primitive burial site, which would point to a belief in the afterlife.

"How they treated their dead is crucial to understanding how human-like they were," he said, but he stressed that much more research is required on that question.

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