15 September 2006: Science Magazine
News of the Week
Mild Climate, Lack of Moderns Let Last Neandertals Linger in Gibraltar
Michael Balter

One of the few things researchers agree on regarding the Neandertals is that the story of these European hominids ends in extinction. But just when the last Neandertal died, and whether modern humans or a changing climate sealed their fate, are matters of lively debate (Science, 14 September 2001, p. 1980). Now a team working at Gibraltar, at the southern tip of Spain, reports radiocarbon dates suggesting that some Neandertals survived thousands of years longer than previously thought, taking refuge in southern Europe where the climate and environment were favorable, and where moderns were still fairly thin on the ground. "While pioneer modern humans were staking tenuous footholds" in the region, says team leader Clive Finlayson, a biologist at the Gibraltar Museum, the last Neandertals "were hanging on."

The good life. Did Neandertals find refuge from a harsh climate and modern humans along Gibraltar's lush coast?

Anthropologist Eric Delson of the City University of New York says that "the dates appear fully supported," and that the notion of Neandertal refugia is "quite reasonable." But some archaeologists believe contamination from younger material might have skewed the dates. "I have considerable reservations," says archaeologist Paul Mellars of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.
   The new dates come from Gorham's Cave in Gibraltar, where Neandertals left their characteristic Mousterian stone tools, although no fossils have been found. The international team obtained 22 radiocarbon dates from small pieces of charcoal in Mousterian layers dug between 1999 and 2005. The dates, reported online this week in Nature, range from 23,000 to 33,000 with a cluster at about 28,000 raw "radiocarbon years"; these must be calibrated to provide true calendar years. Although the calendar age is probably at least several thousand years older than the radiocarbon years, the calibration is uncertain (see p. 1560), and the team has stuck to uncalibrated dates. Reconstructions suggest that Gibraltar was surrounded by coastal wetlands and woodlands and blessed with mild temperatures at this time, Finlayson says, and the Neandertals enjoyed a rich cornucopia of resources including shrubs, birds, reptiles, and mollusks.
   The Gibraltar dates appear to be the youngest accepted for a Neandertal site, although sites in Spain and Portugal have been dated as late as 32,000 radiocarbon years ago. But the Gibraltar Neandertals were not entirely alone: Although there are very few modern human sites in the region older than 30,000 years, one site about 100 kilometers east at Bajondillo, Spain, has been dated to about 32,000 uncalibrated years ago. The team concludes that Neandertals did not rapidly disappear as moderns advanced but rather co-existed with them in a "mosaic" of separate, low-density populations over thousands of years.
   Mellars counters that many of the new dates actually cluster around 30,000 to 31,500 years ago, and the later ones could be contaminated. And archaeologist João Zilhão of the University of Bristol in the U.K. dismisses the idea that Neandertals and moderns lived near each other but had only limited contact. "This really stretches the bounds of credulity," Zilhao says.
   But the Gibraltar Neandertals used only Mousterian technology rather than copying some modern techniques as late Neandertals did elsewhere in Europe, notes Katerina Harvati of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. In the end, Harvati says, the Neandertal groups who stuck to their own traditions might have had the better strategy, and survived longer.

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