Friday Archaeology Blogging
Friday Archaeology Blogging is like a fine wine; it's a lot better if you let it age awhile before uncorking it. Anyway...
Neanderthals' 'last rock refuge'
By Paul Rincon
Science reporter, BBC News, Gibraltar
Our evolutionary cousin the Neanderthal may have survived in Europe much longer than previously thought.
A study in Nature magazine suggests the species may have lived in Gorham's Cave on Gibraltar up to 24,000 years ago.
Ah, Homo Sapiens Neandertalensis, long thought to be a genetic ancestor of modern human beings, but now believed (probably correctly) to have been another distinct species of human. The main debate about Neanderthals these days revolves around what happened to them, and it is this that makes the Gorham's Cave discovery so important. 24,000 years ago is roughly 5,000 to 10,000 years later than the previously accepted date for the end of the Neanderthals. There have been a number of theories as to what happened to Neanderthal Man:
- Destroyed by modern humans. This one's unlikely, or at least unlikely to have been the main reason for the end of the Neanderthals. Without doubt, Neanderthals and "modern" humans did come into contact, and some of that contact was probably violent, but there's nothing to suggest that the two species tried to wipe each other out all across the map. Nor were the Neanderthals "accidentally" wiped out by (this is the theory that "modern" humans were so superior at hunting the the Neanderthals couldn't compete, and that the species died out as a result); all the evidence indicates that Neanderthals were excellent hunters.
- Died out as a species due to interbreeding with "modern" humans. Again, this is unlikely to have been the main cause. Genetically, we do carry Neanderthal traits (for example, some people have a slight bump on the very base of their skulls, right at the back of their heads, and this speaks of a Neanderthal somewhere way back on the family tree), but probably not enough to indicate a full-scale merger of the two species.
- Climate change. This is the mostly likely scenario. Severe climate change occurred about 30,000 years ago, and temperatures dropped again roughly 24,000 years ago. It's entirely possible that isolated pockets of Neanderthals survived the first drop-off, but succumbed to the second one. So why did Neanderthals die out while modern humans survived? Good question. Presumably, "modern" humans had either the numbers or the traits (or both) to survive, while the Neanderthals did not.
A Neanderthal skull found in 1848 at Forbes Quarry, Gibraltar.
A couple of final thoughts on Neanderthals:
- It is of course, entire possible that Neanderthals held out in places even later than they did at Gorham's Cave. However, it is highly unlikely that they survived long enough to have fought a battle against Alexander the Great's Admiral Nearchos off the coast of Arabia in 325 B.C. (Arrian, Indica 24). A few modern scholars have tried to argue that Nearchos' opponents were Neanderthals, but since the only description of this mysterious Arabian tribe is that they were hairy and apparently quite primitive, it's a bit of a stretch. Far more likely is that Nearchos simply encountered a group of neolithic Homo Sapiens Sapiens.
- My own pet theory about Neanderthals is that they represent the folkloric roots of the mythical race that became modern fantasy literature's dwarves. Neanderthals were short, broad, probably hirsute, and lived primarily in caves. In addition, the geographical range of Neanderthal Man overlaps somewhat with the areas where folktales and legends about dwarves first appeared. I am well aware that this is possibly a very silly theory (the geographical element, in particular, is not perfect), but the old folktales had to come from somewhere, and there is no reason why they could not have been inspired by early humans' memories of Neanderthal Man.
Compare and contrast, kiddies!