Research pinpoints Neanderthal last stand

September 15, 2006

Brussels, 14 Sep 2006

Neanderthals may have survived in Europe much longer after the arrival of modern humans than previously thought, according to new findings from a cave in Gibraltar. Modern humans arrived in Europe around 40,000 years ago, and until now evidence suggested that Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) died out shortly afterwards.

The first evidence of Neanderthal presence on Gibraltar was found in 1848, and eight Neanderthal sites have been identified on the rock since then.. Gibraltar is only 6 km long and 426 m high. One of these sites, Gorham's Cave, was used repeatedly over thousands of years, its inhabitants attracted by the high ceiling, which permitted good ventilation of smoke, and the way natural light is able to penetrate deep into the cave.

An international team of researchers, part-funded by the EU's Interreg IIIB Programme Medocc, and led by Clive Finlayson of The Gibraltar Museum, has dated the most recent Neanderthal occupation of the cave to as recently as 28,000 years ago. The research suggests that Neanderthals survived in isolated populations for several millennia after the arrival of modern humans. Their findings are described in the journal Nature.

In an accompanying article, Katerina Harvati of the Max Planck Institute and Eric Delson of the American Museum of Natural History describe Europe's harsh environment, 28,000 years ago. 'At a time of increasing climatic instability and environmental deterioration, they would have had to have survived in ever-smaller groups, confined to less environmentally hostile refugia on the coast of the Mediterranean, and competing for access to resources with modern humans pressing on their territory,' they write.

According to Mr Finlayson and his colleagues, the community of Neanderthals at Gorham's Cave would have had access to a range of plants and vertebrates on the plains, woodland, shrubland, wetlands, cliffs and coastal environments in the surrounding area. 'Such ecological diversity might have facilitated their long survival,' they believe.

The fact that Neanderthals survived in southern Iberia long after the arrival of modern humans there raises the question of whether and how the two species interacted with one another. In northern Iberia and France, evidence of contact comes from the discovery of transitional industries. However, in southern Iberia, no such evidence has been found, implying limited contact between the two groups.

At the time, populations of both species were thinly scattered throughout the region, and the scientists suggest that the colonisation of the region by modern humans was in fact a slow process, with a few, scattered pioneer groups sharing the region with remnant groups of Neanderthals for thousands of years.Further information:

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