Neanderthals’ Last Stand Is Traced
An international team of scientists thinks it has solved the ultimate mystery of the Neanderthals: where and when they made their last stand before extinction. It was at Gibraltar 28,000 years ago, some 2,000 years more recently than previously thought.
The archaeologists and paleontologists reported yesterday finding several hundred stone tools in Gorham’s Cave, on the rugged Mediterranean coast near the Rock of Gibraltar. They are artifacts of the Mousterian technology, usually associated with Neanderthals. So far, no fossil bones of the cave occupants have been uncovered.
The researchers said, however, that the tools established the survival of a population of Neanderthals, a people closely related to human ancestors, in the southernmost point of Western Europe long after they disappeared elsewhere.
These were, they concluded, the last Neanderthals “currently recorded anywhere.”
The scientists, led by Clive Finlayson of the Gibraltar Museum, announced the discovery at a news conference at the museum. Their report was simultaneously published on the Web site of the journal Nature, www.nature.com. It will appear in the journal at a later date.
In an accompanying commentary in Nature, two paleontologists not involved in the research, Eric Delson and Katerina Harvati, agreed that the date of 28,000 years ago was “later than any other well-documented supposed Neanderthal occurrence.”
They added a note of caution, saying that while Gorham’s Cave “might well pinpoint the newly extended end of a long lineage” of Neanderthals in Europe, only “time will tell” if the findings are correct.
Dr. Delson is a paleontologist at Lehman College of the City University of New York and the American Museum of Natural History. Dr. Harvati, an evolutionary scientist, is a specialist in Neanderthal research at the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
Dr. Delson said in an interview that the dates for the artifacts “appeared to be solid” and that southern Iberia “was indeed a region where Neanderthals survived long after modern humans were dominant elsewhere in Europe.”
Recently revised dating shows that anatomically modern Homo sapiens migrated to Europe from Africa by 35,000 years ago and over time they displaced Neanderthals, who had lived on the continent for about 200,000 years.
Erik Trinkaus, a Neanderthal specialist at Washington University in St. Louis who was not a member of the discovery team, expressed reservations about the accuracy of 28,000-year date, noting that it was based on analysis of tiny pieces of charcoal, which often migrate from one layer to another in sediments.
Gorham’s Cave had yielded many butchered animal bones and stone tools over the last 50 years. IN fact, Neanderthal fossils were uncovered long ago in nearby Forbes Quarry, but were not recognized as such until after the first established Neanderthal specimen was found in 1856 in Germany.
Dr. Finlayson and Spanish archaeologists began digging in earnest at the cave in 1999. They methodically excavated more than 60 square feet of the cave floor by 2005, penetrating several layers with evidence of occupation. The depth of the layers indicated that the cave was home to Mousterian toolmakers over a long stretch of time.
Indeed, the Finlayson team reported that some layers hold artifacts appeared to be only 24,000 years old. But the conceded that these dates were suspect.
Dr. Delson and Dr. Harvati also pointed out that “evidence of Mousterian tools does not in itself indicate that their makers were Neanderthals: this is merely a reasonable assumption.”
Tools of this type in Europe have only been found in recognized Neanderthal sites. But in the Middle East and Northwest Africa, other human ancestors appeared to have made such tools.
Recovering fossils from the cave, Dr. Delson and Dr. Harvati wrote, “would resolve the uncertainty and possibly shed light on the morphology of the Neanderthals.” Until then, they added, “we can only be certain that Mousterian toolmakers occupied Gorham’s Cave as late as 28,000 years ago.”