In 1993, cave explorers stumbled upon a strange phenomenon in a limestone cave near Altamura, Italy. An ancient skeleton had melded into the cave’s calcite concretions. Aside from his skull and part of his shoulder, the man had almost completely become part of the calcite.

No one is quite sure how the Altamura Man, which is what he came to be called, ended up in the cave. But some scientists believe he fell into a well and starved to death there. And though it’s been well over two decades since the discovery, scientists haven’t been able to study him too closely since it’s impossible to remove the remains from the cave. A recent study, however, seems to have changed all that.

For the study, published in the Journal of Human Evolution, researchers extracted samples of the man’s DNA to confirm his age, and were surprised to find that he is likely the most ancient Neanderthal to ever have DNA extracted — while combined, it's the oldest extraction, his bones aren't the oldest Neanderthal fossils to be found, and his DNA isn't the oldest to be extracted from human ancestral remains. Still, his remains could be up to 170,000 years old.

“Despite the fact that this specimen represents one of the most extraordinary hominin specimens ever found in Europe, for the last two decades our knowledge of it has been based purely on the documented on-site observations,” the authors wrote in the abstract. “Recently, the retrieval from the cave of a fragment of bone (part of the right scapula) allowed the first dating of the individual, the quantitative analysis of a diagnostic morphological feature, and a preliminary paleogenetic characterization of this hominin skeleton from Altamura.”

Overall, it’s a pretty big deal because it offers scientists a new light into our Neanderthal pasts. Neanderthals are related to modern humans, but differ in DNA by about 0.12 percent.

“The Altamura man represents the most complete skeleton of a single nonmodern human ever found,” Fabi Di Vencenzo, a paleoanthropologist at Sapienza University of Rome, and an author of the study, told Live Science. “Almost all the bony elements are preserved and undamaged.”

Source: Lari M, Di Vincenzo F, Borsato A, Ghirotto S, Micheli M, Balsamo C. The Neanderthal in the karst: First dating, morphometric, and paleogenetic data on the fossil skeleton from Altamura (Italy). Journal of Human Evolution. 2015.