for National Geographic News
A new cave discovery suggests that Neandertals survived until at least 28,000 years ago2,000 years longer than previously thought.
The Iberian Peninsulanow home to Spain, Portugal, and Gibraltarwas a final holdout for Neandertals (often spelled "Neanderthals") as modern humans spread across the rest of Europe and an ice age descended, a new study says (map of the Iberian Peninsula).
Clive Finlayson, an anthropologist at the Gibraltar Museum, and his colleagues studied Neandertal artifacts in Gibraltar's Gorham Cave. Gibraltar, located at the southern tip of Spain, is an overseas territory of the United Kingdom.
The oldest deposits in the cave date back to 120,000 years ago.
"In that context Neandertals were occupying the cave on and off for the better part of a hundred thousand years," Finlayson said. "It must have been a pretty special place."
Finlayson's team reports its findings today on the Web site of the journal Nature.
The researchers used radiocarbon dating on 22 pieces of microscopic charcoal found among Neandertal tools in fire pits in Gorham Cave.
According to the dating results, Neandertals repeatedly visited the cave until at least 28,000 years ago and perhaps as recently as 24,000 years ago.
While some of the youngest pieces date to 24,000 years ago, the team is cautious in their interpretation of that material because it is found lower down in the site than older material.
Mixing from the repeated use of the fire pit may or may not explain the messy order.
Nevertheless, Finlayson said, the date of 28,000 years ago "is younger than anything else available today" as evidence of Neandertals.
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