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At brink of collapse, Neanderthals may have flourished

June 24, 2008
Courtesy University College London
and World Science staff

Stone tools unearthed by U.K. ar­chae­o­log­ists sug­gest north­ern Eu­rope’s last Ne­an­der­thal peo­ple were thriv­ing and ad­vanc­ing—even as their end drew near, the re­search­ers say.

Oth­er ex­perts sug­gest the arti­facts may in­stead come from a “pi­oneer” popula­t­ion of mod­ern hu­mans, but are in­ter­est­ing ei­ther way.

A stone blade found at Beed­ings, West Sus­sex, U.K. (Cre­dit: UCL)


“The­re’s a real pos­si­bil­ity these were left by some of the last Ne­an­der­thal hunt­ing groups to oc­cu­py north­ern Eu­rope,” said Uni­ver­s­ity Col­lege Lon­don ar­chaeo­g­ist Mat­thew Pope, who leads ex­cava­t­ions at the site near Pul­bor­ough, West Sus­sex. 

The tools “are tech­no­log­ic­ally ad­vanced and po­ten­tially old­er than tools in Brit­ain be­long­ing to our own species,” he added. “The im­pres­sion they give is of a popula­t­ion in com­plete com­mand of both land­scape and nat­u­ral raw ma­te­ri­als with a flour­ish­ing tech­nol­o­gy—not a peo­ple on the edge of ex­tinc­tion.”

Yet Ne­an­der­thals, a stocky breed of early hu­man rel­a­tives, died out by an es­ti­mat­ed 28,000 years ago. Why is de­bat­ed. Sci­en­tists have cit­ed failed com­pe­ti­tion with the mod­ern hu­man spe­cies or in­ter­breed­ing as pos­si­ble ex­plana­t­ions.

Pope’s team claims it is con­duct­ing the first mod­ern, sci­en­tif­ic in­ves­ti­ga­t­ion of the U.K. site since its dis­cov­ery in 1900. At that time, some 2,300 per­fectly pre­served stone tools were found dur­ing the con­struc­tion of a large house known as Beed­ings. The site’s im­por­tance was rec­og­nized only much later, ac­cord­ing to Pope’s team, when re­search showed the tools had strong si­m­i­lar­i­ties with oth­er tools from north­ern Eu­rope dat­ing from 35,000 to 42,000 years ago. 

This pre­vi­ous work, by Rog­er Ja­co­bi of the An­cient Hu­man Oc­cupa­t­ion of Brit­ain Proj­ect, sug­gested the tools “rep­re­sent the soph­is­t­icated hunt­ing kit” of Ne­an­der­thals “only a few mil­len­nia from com­plete dis­ap­pear­ance in the re­gion,” Pope added. Un­like ear­li­er, more typ­i­cal Ne­an­der­thal tools, he said, these were made with long, straight blades. These were turned in­to a va­ri­e­ty of bone and hide-processing im­ple­ments, as well as le­thal spear points.

The new ex­cava­t­ions, Pope added, prove “beyond doubt that the ma­te­ri­al dis­cov­ered here was gen­u­ine and orig­i­nat­ed from fis­sures with­in the lo­cal sand­stone. We al­so dis­cov­ered old­er, more typ­i­cal Ne­an­der­thal tools, deeper in the fis­sure,” Pope said. “Clearly, Ne­an­der­thal hunters were drawn to the hill over a long per­i­od time, pre­sumably for ex­cel­lent views of the game-herds graz­ing on the plains be­low.”

The ex­cava­t­ions sug­gest the site may not be un­ique, Pope said: si­m­i­lar sites with fis­sure sys­tems com­pa­ra­ble to that which yielded the Beed­ings finds are thought to dot south­east Eng­land. Pope plans to look fur­ther.

“Sites such as this are ex­tremely rare and a rel­a­tively lit­tle con­sid­ered ar­chae­o­log­i­cal re­source,” said Bar­ney Sloane, Head of His­tor­ic En­vi­ron­ment Com­mis­sions at Eng­lish Her­it­age, a Swin­burne, U.K.-based pre­serva­t­ion group. “Their re­mains sit at a key wa­ter­shed in the ev­o­lu­tion­ary his­to­ry of north­ern Eu­rope. The tools at Beed­ings could equally be the sig­na­ture of pi­o­neer popula­t­ions of mod­ern hu­mans, or traces of the last Ne­an­der­thal hunt­ing groups to oc­cu­py the re­gion. This study of­fers a rare chance to an­swer some cru­cial ques­tions about just how tech­no­log­ic­ally ad­vanced Ne­an­der­thals were, and how they com­pare with our own species.”


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Tools found at a U.K. archaeological dig suggests northern Europe’s last Neanderthal people were thriving and advancing—even as their end drew near, some researchers say. Other experts suggest the finds may instead come from a “pioneer” population of modern humans, but are interesting either way. “There’s a real possibility these were left by some of the last Neanderthal hunting groups to occupy northern Europe,” said University College London archaeogist Matthew Pope, who leads the excavation. “The tools we’ve found at the site are technologically advanced and potentially older than tools in Britain belonging to our own species,” he added. “The impression they give is of a population in complete command of both landscape and natural raw materials with a flourishing technology—not a people on the edge of extinction.” Yet Neanderthals, a stocky breed of early human relatives, died out by an estimated 28,000 years ago. The reasons are debated, though scientists have cited either failed competition with “modern” humans or interbreeding as possible explanations. Pope’s team is conducting the first modern, scientific investigation of the site near Pulborough, West Sussex, since its discovery in 1900. At that time, some 2,300 perfectly preserved stone tools were found during the construction of a large house known as Beedings. Only recently was the site’s importance recognized, according to Pope’s team: research showed the tools had strong similarities with other tools from northern Europe dating from 35,000 to 42,000 years ago. This previous work, by Roger Jacobi of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain Project, suggests the tools “represent the sophisticated hunting kit” of Neanderthals “only a few millennia from complete disappearance in the region,” Pope added. Unlike earlier, more typical Neanderthal tools, he said, these were made with long, straight blades. These were turned into a variety of bone and hide-processing implements, as well as lethal spear points. The new excavations have proved “the material discovered here was genuine and originated from fissures within the local sandstone. We also discovered older, more typical Neanderthal tools, deeper in the fissure,” Pope said. “Clearly, Neanderthal hunters were drawn to the hill over a long period time, presumably for excellent views of the game-herds grazing on the plains below the ridge.” The excavations suggest the site may not be unique, Pope said: similar sites with fissure systems comparable to that which yielded the Beedings finds are thought to dot southeast England. Pope plans to look further. “Sites such as this are extremely rare and a relatively little considered archaeological resource,” said Barney Sloane, Head of Historic Environment Commissions at English Heritage, a Swinburne, U.K.-based historic preservation group. “Their remains sit at a key watershed in the evolutionary history of northern Europe. The tools at Beedings could equally be the signature of pioneer populations of modern humans, or traces of the last Neanderthal hunting groups to occupy the region. This study offers a rare chance to answer some crucial questions about just how technologically advanced Neanderthals were, and how they compare with our own species.”