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At night at the museum, a Neanderthal skeleton comes out of the vault

Tales From the Vault: A monthly series

A night at the museum: Neanderthal skeleton (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

It is night at the National Museum of Natural History. In the Hall of Human Origins, the lights are dimmed. The audiovisual displays that fill the exhibit with apelike grunts and lectures on human evolution switch off in unison. Parents corral their children, and a security guard sweeps through the exhibit to shoo out stragglers. “You can come back when the museum opens at 10,” she says, her tone stern. Then there is quiet.

But not for long. Night at the museum means it's time for one precious skeleton to leave its case.

Neither Ben Stiller nor a magical Egyptian artifact will be involved in the evening's proceedings. Instead, Martin Haeusler of the University of Zurich asked the museum to open the glass cabinet housing the 65,000-year-old Neanderthal bones. He has flown here from Switzerland, toting a 3-D scanner in a heavy black case, for a chance to survey the skeleton.

Rick Potts, director of the Smithsonian's Human Origins Program and museum specialist Jennifer Clark enter the hall with chief of exhibit design Michael Lawrence, who carries an all-important key to the Neanderthal case.

“You ready to go?” Potts asks Haeusler, who nods. “Then let's get started.”

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The skeleton, named Shanidar 3, is the only original Neanderthal skeleton displayed in the United States, and it's one of few ancient hominin specimens in the world on public display. These remains are rare, fragile and vulnerable to damage and decay. They're also human — they were part of a person not unlike ourselves, a member of a closely related species that lived at the same time as our ancestors.

The process for removing the specimen from the case is a closely-held secret. Before Lawrence opens it, he makes the onlookers promise not to discuss what happens next. Everyone — including this reporter — solemnly agrees.

Many ancient hominin remains are kept in safes in highly secure labs, accessible only to top scientists. Debates about how and when they're moved can get contentious: In 2008, several museums including the NMNH refused to participate in a U.S. tour of the Australopithecus skeleton known as “Lucy” because of the potential for the bones to be damaged.

“There is an interesting tension that exists between wanting to display original fossil human specimens and maintaining the ability to care for them, to make them secure, to protect them for as long as possible and to make them available for study,” Potts says.

That last point is crucial, according to Potts. A fossil is not like a piece of art, existing mainly to be looked at. Making specimens available for research that can explain who we are and the world we live in is the whole point of having them.

“It's a way of honoring them and remembering who they were on their own terms rather than just treating them as objects in a museum,” Potts says.

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In 2010, the NMNH debuted a display that would enable Shanidar 3 to be both admired and understood. The skeleton is stored in a temperature-controlled case behind two panes of glass and multiple sets of locked doors that can be opened for visiting researchers. Potts estimated that scientists come to examine the specimen roughly once a year.

Museum officials are confident that these measures make the display case as secure as any locked laboratory vault. But that doesn't mean they're willing to share the details of how the bones are protected with just anyone.

While Lawrence opens the case, Haeusler has been busy turning the empty exhibit hall into a makeshift lab. On a table in a corner, he sets up his 3-D scanner — a complicated contraption of wires and lasers atop a tripod — which he will use to make copies of each of Shanidar 3's fragile ribs, hip bones and vertebrae. These parts of the human anatomy are important indicators of how we move, and mobility is one Haeusler's main research interests.

With a deftness that comes from a lifetime of handling priceless ancient hominin remains, Hausler removes each bone from its acid-free foam cushion and places it on a mat to be scanned. He doesn't feel the same awe that overwhelmed him the first few times he held a fossil human. Still, “I always remember that this was a person,” he says.

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Shanidar 3 was discovered in an Iraqi cave alongside nine other skeletons in 1957. In the decades since, researchers like Hausler have pieced together an extraordinarily intimate portrait of this Neanderthal's life.

He was a 40- to 50-year-old man — elderly, by the standards of 65,000 years ago. To the surprise of scientists who once believed that Neanderthals were mainly meat eaters, molecules of food trapped in the dental plaque on his teeth reveal that he had a varied and mostly vegetarian diet. His last years were made painful by arthritis, as shown by damage to the bones of his feet. But clearly someone took care of him, Potts says. How else could he have survived so long with such limited mobility?

Other individuals uncovered at the site support this claim. One, known as Shanidar 1, bears evidence that he was severely disabled by a head injury as a child, yet he lived to be at least 40 years old.

“That’s a very clear instance of members of the social group caring for one another,” Potts says. “That’s a pretty astonishing story.”

But Shanidar 3 was also the victim of violence. The ninth rib on his left side has been scored by a sharp blade — evidence of the attack that ended his life. Growth on the fractured bone suggests that the man lived about a week after he was injured, perhaps more evidence that he was cared for, before ultimately succumbing to his wounds.

Scientists can only speculate about who killed Shanidar 3 and why. It's hard to imagine that the ailing man would have posed much of a threat to anyone, Potts says. In 2009, scientists studying the damaged rib concluded that the injury could have been caused by a spear, perhaps thrown by a modern human. Shanidar 3, they argue, may be a rare example of interspecies murder.

But Potts finds that explanation unconvincing, and the case of Shanidar 3's killing remains far from closed. The only way to get the Neanderthal's full story, Potts says, is to keep making the skeleton available to researchers like Haeusler in the hope that they can eke new data and new details out of the ancient bones.

Haeusler's work on the skeleton is painstaking — it's 10:15 p.m. before he's scanned the full skeleton. Then the remains go back in their vault, safe beneath thick glass and behind locked doors, ready to meet tomorrow's stream of visitors.

Tales From the Vault: Science museums are home to vast research collections, most of which the public never gets to see — until now. Once a month, Speaking of Science will go behind the scenes at our favorite museums to introduce readers to the fascinating objects and people we find there. Read past installments here.