© Nic Herber, L'homme de Loschbour / Musée National d'Histoire Naturelle
RTL Today contributor Thomas Tutton recounts the tale of Loschbour Man, the oldest human skeleton ever discovered in the Grand Duchy.
Regular readers of our history column will know that we tend to focus on Luxembourg’s modern history. Today, however, we’re going back deep in time – around 8,000 years, to be precise – to a time when humans were on the brink of a new age, and the first documented Luxembourger would be tragically left behind.
Humans in Europe
To start off with, let’s refresh our memories of ancient human history, which, if you’re like me, you haven’t given a moment’s thought to since primary school.
This is an ever-changing field, the central tenets of which are constantly being challenged and re-examined by fresh archaeological finds and improved dating technologies. In other words, no one really knows anything for sure, and especially not me.
The first humans – that is, members of the Homo genus – to reach Europe from their origins in Africa arrived less than 2 million years ago. These were Homo erectus, and they were followed by a wave of ancestral species (the existence of some of which are highly disputed) such as Homo antecessor, Homo heidelbergiensis, Denisovans and Neanderthals.
Our species of modern humans, Homo sapiens, emerged in Africa around 300,000 years ago, and is widely believed to have arrived permanently in Europe around 40,000 years ago, where these pioneers encountered the Neanderthals.
(A bombshell new study in July 2019 dated a Homo sapiens skeleton in Greece back to 210,000 years ago, which if correct would completely reshape our understanding of ancient European pre-history.)
Either way, after a few thousand years of coexistence in Europe, the Neanderthals died out, leaving sapiens to rule supreme. By around 8,000 years ago, or 6,000 BC, all other species of Homo had (almost certainly) become extinct worldwide and there were around five million modern humans dotted around the globe.
And one of them was a little man from the Mullerthal valley in present-day Luxembourg.
On October 7th, 1935, a schoolteacher and amateur archaeologist from Luxembourg by the name of Nicholas Thill led a dig at a site now known as Loschbour. It lies on the banks of the Black Ernz river in eastern Luxembourg, between Reuland and Mullerthal in Waldbillig commune, not far from the well-known Schiessentümpel waterfall.
Thill’s team discovered an almost fully-formed skeleton in a rock shelter. It was taken to the National Museum of National History (MNHN) in Luxembourg City, where it still resides.
The site where Loschbour Man was discovered in eastern Luxembourg. / © Cayambe, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loschbour_man#/media/File:Loschbour_Mullerthal_2013.jpg
Archaeologists were able to discern that this was the body of a Homo sapiens, but the secrets contained inside the skeleton’s genetic makeup lay hidden until this century. In recent years, however, DNA sequencing technology has advanced to the point where the genomes of long-buried bones, including those found at the site in Loschbour, can be reconstructed and analysed.
In 2014, DNA was extracted from the upper molar of the Loschbour skeleton. The results of the study, a collaboration between Luxembourg archaeologists and David Reich’s team at Harvard, demonstrated that Loschbour Man was one of the last native hunter-gatherers in Europe.
Last of the Hunter-Gatherers
He couldn’t have known it, but in the words of Adam Rutherford, a well-known British geneticist, Loschbour Man was 'standing on the edge of a revolution that had already begun, and would shape Europe and the world for evermore.'
Loschbour Man lived on the cusp of the Neolithic age, which had begun in the Middle East with the development of agriculture around 10,000 BC.
The DNA study allowed archaeologists to confirm a number of details about what Loschbour Man would have looked like. He was indeed a man; he almost certainly had dark hair and blue eyes; his skin was darker than the average present-day northern European; he was around 160cm tall, he weighed about 60kg, and he died between the ages of 34 and 47.
The skeleton of Loschbour Man. / © Public domain
That wasn’t all, however. Buried alongside Loschbour Man were a number of flint weapons that would have been used to kill deer and wild boar, and this information pointed to his method of subsistence: he was a hunter-gatherer, not a farmer. This hypothesis was confirmed by analysis of Loschbour’s DNA: he had a low-carb diet and was lactose-intolerant, unlike 90% of modern Europeans.
Information from Loschbour’s genes also helped to establish that Europeans’ ancestors probably can be traced back to three separate historic migrations: the first around 40,000 years ago, who mated with Neanderthals and eventually outlived them; the second around 7-9,000 years ago, who were the first generation of Europeans to develop agriculture; and the third, most recent wave, coming from Russia around 5,000 years ago.
The Loschbour skeleton is well-known in the Grand Duchy, and in 2012 Nic Herber produced a video animation entitled 'L'homme de Loschbour,' which can be found with English subtitles below and has since been updated with information from the DNA study.
All in all, Loschbour Man has contributed significantly to our understanding of European pre-history. For that, even if he was backwards for his times – a hunter at a time when farming was taking over the world – we owe a debt of gratitude to the first documented Luxembourger.