An international team from Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, German, Austrian, and Italian research institutions has changed our thoughts about the death of Neanderthals.
In a study published in the journal Heliyon, the team found that Neanderthals survived at least 3,000 years longer than we thought in southern Iberia—what is now Spain—long after they had died out everywhere else.
The researchers spent more than ten years carrying out fieldwork, excavating three new sites in southern Spain, where they discovered evidence of distinctly Neanderthal materials dating back 37,000 years ago. Those findings suggest that the process of modern human populations absorbing Neanderthal populations through interbreeding was not a regular, gradual wave-of-advance, but a “stop-and-go, punctuated, geographically uneven history.”
The disappearance of the Neanderthals, who are the closest evolutionary relatives to modern humans, is one of the most enduring mysteries in all of human evolution. Their ancestors left Africa before modern humans, venturing into Europe as far back as 500,000 years ago, and they were still there when our ancestors embarked on the same journey about 70,000 years ago. Both Neanderthals and modern humans actually lived alongside each other in Europe for several thousand years before Neanderthals vanished some 30,000 years ago.
The lead author of the study and a researcher at the University of Barcelona, João Zilhão, said in the press release, “technology from the Middle Paleolithic in Europe is exclusively associated with the Neanderthals.”
The Middle Paleolithic was a part of the Stone Age, and it spanned from 300,000 to 30,000 years ago. It is widely acknowledged that during this time, anatomically modern humans started to move out of Africa and assimilated coeval Eurasian populations, including Neanderthals, through interbreeding.
He added that they have found Neanderthal artefacts dated to thousands of years later than anywhere else in western Europe in three new excavation sites. “Even in the adjacent regions of northern Spain and southern France, the latest Neanderthal sites are all significantly older,” said Zilhão.
This process was not a straightforward, smooth one, but instead, it seems to have been punctuated with different evolutionary patterns in different geographical regions, according to the new study.
“We believe that the stop-and-go, punctuated, uneven mechanism we propose must have been the rule in human evolution, which helps explain why Paleolithic material culture tends to form patterns of geographically extensive similarity, while Paleolithic genomes tend to show complex ancestry patchworks,” added Zilhão.
Zilhão believes that the key to understanding this pattern of geographically extensive similarity lies in not only revisiting old sites, but also in discovering and analysing new ones. Although finding and excavating new sites with the latest techniques is time-consuming, he believes it is the approach that pays off.
In 2010, the team published evidence from the site of Cueva Antón in Spain that provided unambiguous evidence for symbolism among Neanderthals. Putting that evidence in context and using the latest radiometric techniques to date the site, researchers show that Cueva Antón is the most recent known Neanderthal site, according to the press statement.
Zilhão said that the textbook ideas about Neanderthals and modern humans have been mostly derived from finds in France, Germany, and central Europe, but during the Ice Ages, these were peripheral areas. Probably as much as half of the Paleolithic people who ever lived in Europe were Iberians. “There is still a lot we do not know about human evolution, and, especially, about the Neanderthals,” said Zilhão.
The Neanderthals appear to have lived in relatively small groups, moving frequently on the landscape but reusing the same locations often, inhabiting Eurasia from the Atlantic regions of Europe eastward to central Asia, and from as far north as present-day Belgium southward to the Mediterranean and southwest Asia. Similar human populations lived at the same time in eastern Asia and Africa.
Because Neanderthals lived in a land of abundant limestone caves, which preserve bones well, and where there has been a long history of prehistoric research, they are better known than any other archaic human group, according to the Britannica Encyclopedia. They shared a number of important characteristics with modern humans, including their large brains, manual dexterity, walking ability, and social sophistication.