40,000 years ago, an adolescent hunter in the Carpathian Mountains had an accident one winter and died. The spring meltwater washed his body into a cave, where it became lodged within a niche and remained untouched for thousands of years.
In 2005, when archaeologists opened up the Romanian cave of Peştera cu Oase, they discovered the boy’s skull, along with the jawbone of a different man. The remains were dated at 40,000 years old, making them the oldest Homo sapiens fossils anywhere in Europe.
The skull had the key features typical of a modern human – the high forehead and a rounded braincase. But other things looked odd: his teeth, cheekbones and muscle attachments were all characteristic of an older human species - the Neanderthals.
Neanderthals were masters of Ice Age Europe and had already been living there for at least 200,000 years when Oase Boy and his kind arrived. It has long been thought that Homo sapiens simply wiped them out, because we were so much more advanced and better equipped. But this skull suggests something else – that at the boundaries of Europe, the two species met, mated and hybridized, producing the strange mix of features evident in Oase Boy.