Did Humans and Neandertals Battle for Control of the Middle East?

By Ben Harder
for National Geographic News
March 8, 2002

Thousands of years before Christians, Muslims, and Jews became locked in dispute over the Middle East, humans wrested control of the region from its true original inhabitants, the Neandertals, in what one scientist compares to a prolonged game of football.

The Neandertals, stocky and intelligent humanoids, lived in Europe and Western Asia for thousands of years before the first humans settled in the area. Then true humans moved into the region from Africa.

The new arrivals settled the land, and the resident Neandertals eventually died out or moved on as the humans continued to spread outward. By 30,000 years ago, humans had occupied most of the Old World, and Neandertals had disappeared from the globe.

Exactly how ownership of the Middle East was resolved between Neandertals and modern humans—and whether it was bloody in nature—remains a mystery. One thing that's beyond doubt, however, is that the Neandertals gave their successors a run for the land of milk and honey, according to Ofer Bar-Yosef, an archaeologist at Harvard University.

"The battle between Homo sapiens and Neandertals was like a football game," he said last month in Boston at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "The Neandertals were the losers. They were good players, but they just lost the game."

Like an exciting Superbowl match, the outcome of the confrontation wasn't a forgone conclusion from the beginning, Bar-Yosef said.

"Change of Possession"

The "game," Bar-Yosef said, consisted of several changes in field position—long periods of time during which the two groups alternated ownership of present-day Israel and the Middle East.

He and his colleague John Shea of the State University of New York at Stony Brook investigated how humans managed to out-compete the Neandertals that already lived in the area.

Their analysis focused on two archaeological sites in Israel, called Skhul (pronounced "school") and Kafzeh. Archaeological evidence excavated at the sites years ago indicated that people had lived in the caves, at least occasionally, for more than 130,000 years.

Most remarkable about the finds was the discovery that the caves had changed hands between Neandertals and modern humans no fewer than three times.

In the upper layers of the dirt floors in both caves, archaeologists found bones of humans. Lower down, in layers that were deposited between 47,000 to 65,000 years ago, human bones were absent, but researchers excavated Neandertal remains. That discovery corresponds to a period of Neandertal occupation of the site that lasted nearly 20,000 years.

Continued on Next Page >>


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