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Neanderthals hung on tough, study finds

Sept. 13, 2006
Special to World Science  

Ne­an­der­thals did­n’t give up on ex­ist­ence eas­i­ly, sug­gests a new stu­dy that tracked their last stand at the tip of Eu­rope. 

The hu­man re­la­tives sur­vived in the con­ti­nent for sev­er­al mil­len­ni­a af­ter the mod­ern hu­mans ar­rived there, ac­cord­ing to ex­ca­va­tions from what sci­en­tists said seems to have been their last ref­uge. 

Ne­an­der­thal set­tle around a camp­fire in an artist's con­cep­tion. (Cour­te­sy NASA)


That would sug­gest they didn’t im­me­di­ate­ly suc­cumb af­ter mo­d­ern hu­mans en­c­roached, but hung in there long­er than ex­pec­t­ed.

The find­ings in
­di­cate Ne­an­der­thals, Ho­mo ne­an­der­tha­len­sis, lived on in Gi­bral­tar, a rocky out­crop off the Span­ish coast, un­til 28,000 years ago, and per­haps as re­cent­ly as 24,000 years ago, they added.

The re­search, by Clive Fin­layson of the Gi­bral­tar Mu­se­um and col­leagues, ap­pears on­line this week in the re­search jour­nal Na­ture

Mod­ern hu­mans are be­lieved to have reached west­ern Eu­rope at least 32,000 years ago. The new find­ings come from Gor­ham’s Ca­ve in Gi­bral­tar, where stone tools were dis­cov­ered more than 50 years ago. 

Dat­ing of more re­cent­ly un­cov­ered ar­ti­facts, in­clud­ing a se­ries of hearth places all cre­at­ed at the same spot in the ca­ve, now show how long-lasting was the Ne­an­der­thal set­tle­ment, ac­cord­ing to Fin­layson and col­leagues. Peo­ple dwel
­ling there would have had ac­cess to di­verse plants and an­i­mals, sandy plains, wood­lands, wet­lands and coast­line—a wealth of re­sour­ces that re­search­ers say prob­a­bly helped the hu­man re­la­tives per­sist.

“The last Ne­an­der­thals were par­t­ic­i­pants in one of the most dra­mat­ic events in the sto­ry of hu­man evo­lu­tion,” wrote Er­ic Del­son of Leh­man Col­lege, N.Y., and Ka­te­rina Har­vati of the Max-Planck In­sti­tute for Ev­o­lu­tion­a
­ry An­thro­pol­o­gy in Leip­zig, Ger­ma­ny, in a com­men­tary ac­com­pa­ny­ing the pa­per.

“At a time of in­creas­ing cli­mat­ic in­sta­bil­i­ty and en­vi­ron­men­tal de­te­ri­o­ra­tion, they would have had to [sur­vive] in ever-smaller groups” in harsh ref­uges on the Med­i­ter­ra­ne­an coast, com­pet­ing for re­sources with mod­ern hu­mans press­ing on their lands.

“These con­di­tions are wide­ly thought to have led to the Ne­an­derthals’ ex­tinction with­in a rel­a­tively short time af­ter the col­o­ni­za­tion of Eu­rope by mod­ern hu­mans,” they not­ed.

Now it seems, they added, that “a group of Ne­an­derthals sur­vived ex­tinction in this part of south­ern Ibe­ri­a un­til at least 28,000 years ago—thou­sands of years af­ter an­a­tom­i­cal
­ly mod­ern hu­mans had firm­ly es­tab­lished them­selves as the in­her­i­tors of the Eu­ropean con­ti­nent.”


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Neanderthals apparently didn’t give up on existence easily, suggests a new study, which traces their last stand at the tip of Europe. The Neanderthals survived in the continent for several millennia after the arrival of modern humans, according to excavations from what scientists said seems to have been their last refuge. The discovery suggests that they may not have immediately succumbed after the encroachment of modern humans but hung in there for longer than expected, according to the researchers. The findings suggest Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis, may have survived in Gibraltar, a rocky outcrop off the Spanish coast, until 28,000 years ago, and perhaps as recently as 24,000 years ago, they added. The research, by Clive Finlayson of the Gibraltar Museum and colleagues, appears online this week in the research journal Nature. Modern humans arrived in western Europe at least 32,000 years ago. This suggests that the two hominin species shared the landscape for several thousand years, the researchers wrote. Hominins are a subfamily of the hominids that includes our species and some extinct relatives, along with gorillas and chimps The new findings come from Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar, where stone tools were discovered more than 50 years ago. Dating of more recently uncovered artifacts, including a series of hearth places all created at the same location within the cave, now show just how long-lasting was the Neanderthal settlement, according to Finlayson and colleagues. People living there would have had access to diverse plants and animals, sandy plains, woodlands, wetlands and coastline—an environmental richness that probably helped the Neanderthals persist. “The last Neanderthals were participants in one of the most dramatic events in the story of human evolution,” wrote Eric Delson of Lehman College, N.Y., and Katerina Harvati of the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, in a commentary accompanying the research paper in the journal. “At a time of increasing climatic instability and environmental deterioration, they would have had to have survived in ever-smaller groups” in harsh refuges on the Mediterranean coast, “competing for access to resources with modern humans pressing on their territory.” “These conditions are widely thought to have led to the Neanderthals’ extinction within a relatively short time after the colonization of Europe by modern humans,” they noted. Now it seems, they added, that “a group of Neanderthals survived extinction in this part of southern Iberia until at least 28,000 years ago — thousands of years after anatomically modern humans had firmly established themselves as the inheritors of the European continent.”