The New York Times, BBC News, and Nature News have all published little articles reviewing an upcoming publication that shows Gibraltar may have been the last refuge of the Neanderthals. The paper is titled, “Late survival of Neanderthals at the southernmost extreme of Europe,” and the abstract,

“The late survival of archaic hominin populations and their long contemporaneity with modern humans is now clear for southeast Asia1. In Europe the extinction of the Neanderthals, firmly associated with Mousterian technology, has received much attention, and evidence of their survival after 35 kyr bp has recently been put in doubt2. Here we present data, based on a high-resolution record of human occupation from Gorham’s Cave, Gibraltar, that establish the survival of a population of Neanderthals to 28 kyr bp. These Neanderthals survived in the southernmost point of Europe, within a particular physiographic context, and are the last currently recorded anywhere. Our results show that the Neanderthals survived in isolated refuges well after the arrival of modern humans in Europe.”

Several hundred stone tools attributed to Neandertals in Gorham’s Cave (to the lower right), on the rugged Mediterranean coast near the Rock of Gibraltar were found after a six year dig. The tools and charcoal remains were dated to be 28,000 years old, meaning that Neandertal’s last known occupation was at this cave before being wiped out. An example of a tool found at the site is an image of a spearpoint located to the right.

The dig was lead by Clive Finlayson of the Gibraltar Museum, who anounced the findings to the public yesterday. Finlayson and his team of Spanish archaeologists started excavating the cave in 1999. By 2005, they had penetrating several layers with evidence of Neandertal occupation…specifically, “they had excavated more than 60 square feet of the cave floor”. The stratigraphic depth of the layers indicated that the cave was home to Mousterian toolmakers over a long stretch of time.

From the New York Times article,

“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.”

The BBC News article goes into a discussion on the hypothesis on Neandertal extinction. The article attributes climate change as reasons why Gibraltar was the last stronghold for Neadertals,

“Gibraltar’s climate was sheltered from many of these changes, but it did eventually deteriorate. Recent deep-sea core data show that temperatures dropped sharply around 24,000 years ago. This could have created drought-like conditions in the area which may also have reduced the number of prey the Neanderthals could catch.”

Check out John Hawks for more goodness.

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