The pancaked remains of a paleolithic person were unveiled at the Museum of Natural History yesterday, amid much anthropological tub thumping from Smithsonian scientists about what the arrival may mean.
The truth is, they said, nobody knows. That's the wonder of it. And the quest.
The shattered skeleton, found early last year encased in a lump of sandstone below Egypt's Aswan Dam, appears to be 60,000 to 80,000 years old: "a putative Neanderthal," said Dr. T. Dale Stewart, physical anthropologist emeritus at the museum.
It also could be another type of ancient man, Stewart said, but he won't know until he frees its bony fragments from the rock in which it arrived from Cairo.
Stewart will have a year in which to pry the skeleton from the stone, using a tiny, pencil-like air gun he finds as marvelous a mystery as the skeleton itself.
And to puzzle its pieces together, and, perhaps, its riddles.
Since the first Neanderthal was discovered in Germany's Neander Valley in 1856, more than 100 have been found in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. That unveiled yesterday, however, is the first found in Egypt.
It was discovered by Dr. Fred Wendorf, an archeologist with Southern Methodist University, who was working in an area called Wadi Kubbaniya on the western side of the Nile Valley.
Wendorf spotted a strange butte-like formation on a terrace at the top of the wadi, and noticed fragments of a human skull and vertebrae eroding from its surface.
When a block of sandstone 2 feet long by 1 1/2 feet wide by a foot thick was sawed from the butte, it was found to contain a human skeleton with its arms extended behind and its legs drawn up beneath.
No previous Neanderthal skeleton has been found so buried.
Stewart finds that intriguing.
But if it proves to be an early ancestor of modern man, that too will be intriguing. More is presently known about Neanderthals than about their contemporaries from whom we sprung.
In fact Neanderthals, once thought to have slouched through prehistory in slack-jawed malevolence, have been rehabilitated by science in recent years.
French anthropologists found evidence in Iraq of a well-developed Neanderthal culture, including an apparent ritual funeral in which the corpse had been covered with flowers.
Stewart, who has studied Neanderthals so long he says he's starting to feel like one, says he believes the discovery was long-delayed vindication for his favorite class of cavemen, who, he says, actually walked upright and had brains bigger than ours.
They are characterized by a fairly subtle combination of physical characteristics--stronger pelvis, receding chin, uniquely shaped shoulder blade--not found in modern man, but otherwise they looked much like us.
"If you met a normally dressed Neanderthal in the New York subway, you wouldn't pay any attention to him," Stewart said.
The slouching walk once attributed to Neanderthals ("alley-oop stuff," says Stewart with a sniff), was discredited when scientists realized that a famous stooped skeleton found in France had been shaped more by arthritis than evolution.
Since the unique physiology of Neanderthals disappeared in later humanoids, however, scientists now believe that Neanderthals are not a direct ancestor of modern man but a curious truncated offshoot of the family tree.
Those with a sunny view of man's nature believe we intermarried with Neanderthals and bred away the differences.
Those with a darker view say we murdered them.
Stewart says we probably did both, and hopes the squashed skeleton in sandstone, which will be returned to Egypt next year, will help shed light on the relationship.