Palaeoanthropologist Patrick Semal is the curator of our anthropological collections and also head of the Heritage Service, which manages all the collections and important historical documents belonging to the RBINS. Patrick is responsible for the Spy Neanderthals, the partial skeletons of this extinct human species that were discovered in the Spy cave in the Namur province.

Patrick Semal, conservator of the anthropological and archeological collections.

As a biology student, Patrick was already conducting research on the teeth of Homo neanderthalensis, and he specialised in biomolecular research on bones. ‘I looked to see which antibodies were present in the bone collagen, to determine whether the bone was human or animal. This is now an outdated technique: since the nineties, we have been able to study this in much greater detail with DNA analysis.’

Spy: collected work

In 2004, Patrick led an international team that inventoried and studied all of the remains from the Spy cave, both human and non-human. The search, which also included specimens from private collections, led to many new publications and the sizeable monograph, Spy Cave: 125 years of multidisciplinary research at the Betche aux Rotches (2012). ‘The research confirmed that the bone remains from Spy came from two different adult Neanderthals. We also established that there was a third individual in the collections – a child under two years of age. Using Carbon-14 dating, we estimated the remains to be around 40,000 years old. They therefore date from the period during which European Neanderthals were disappearing as anatomically modern humans increased.’

The research also showed that the Spy Neanderthals did not just eat meat, which had always previously been thought.‘In the tartar on the teeth of the two adult Spy Neanderthals, we found starch grains from the highly nutritious roots of wild water lilies. These Neanderthals therefore had a more varied diet that was previously thought.’

Coin with the image of Leopold the First, King of Belgium.
The moment when Patrick decided to become an archaeologist was apparently fairly banal: "When I was five, I used to dig pits that I could then make my toy cars drive around. One day I found a coin with a portrait of Leopold I on it. For me, that was it. Biology was definitely in my genes because my mother was a secondary school biology teacher, and nurture also comes into it because she often took me to the Sonian Forest in Brussels when I was younger" and between archaeology and biology lies palaeoanthropology! 


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