Neandertals' Last Stand Was in Gibraltar, Study Suggests

John Roach
for National Geographic News
September 13, 2006
A new cave discovery suggests that Neandertals survived until at least 28,000 years ago—2,000 years longer than previously thought.

The Iberian Peninsula—now home to Spain, Portugal, and Gibraltar—was 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.

Radiocarbon Dates

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.

In an accompanying commentary in Nature, Eric Delson of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and Katerina Harvati of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, put the early dates in context.

"Such a late survival would reinforce the importance of southern Iberia as a refuge area at a time when modern humans were expanding and diversifying culturally across mid-latitude Europe," they write.

Last Stand

Scientists believe Neandertals and modern humans are two different species that shared a common ancestor and overlapped for several thousand years in Europe.

(Related: "Neandertals Hunted as Well as Humans, Study Says" [January 2006].)

Modern humans arrived in western Europe at least 32,000 years ago. Competition between the species in a period of climate change is believed to have doomed the Neandertals by around 30,000 years ago.

But the two species did not overlap at Gorham Cave, allowing Neadertals there to survive for much longer, according to the Gibraltar Museum's Finlayson.

Modern humans are believed to have spread north from Africa into Europe, then west, reaching the Iberian Peninsula last.

The first evidence of modern humans in Iberia is dated to about 18,500 years ago. Before that, human populations in neighboring areas were small, according to Finlayson.

And the mountainous, rugged landscape of the peninsula "probably contributed a lot to keeping the populations isolated from each other," he said.

Without modern humans as competition, the Neandertals likely feasted freely on plants and animals that inhabited the region's woodlands, sandy plains, wetlands, and shoreline.

As the climate cooled in more northern latitudes and modern humans moved farther south and west, "these last pockets [of Iberian Neandertals] kept doing what they had always done," Finlayson said.

But about 24,000 years ago, according to analysis of sediment, a period of prolonged drought struck the region and likely doomed the last Neandertals, he says.

Dates Questioned

Paul Mellars is an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge in England and co-author of a review paper on radiocarbon dating techniques published in Nature this February. That paper revised the timeline for the spread of modern humans across Europe.

According to Mellars, the idea that the Iberian Peninsula was the last place modern humans reached and that it served as a Neandertal refuge is "perfectly plausible."

"The question is whether these dates provide evidence of it. And frankly, I don't think they do," he said.

Mellars said of the late Neandertal dates presented by Finlayson and colleagues, "The majority are around 30,000 to 32,000 years ago.

"If you've got a spread of dates, you should look at the majority of the dates you find, not just the ones that happen to be younger," he said.

"Second," he continued, "radiocarbon dates—whether on charcoal or anything else—can be very prone to contamination by more recent carbon that is intrusive from the top [layers of material."

Contamination of even one percent of the sample, Mellars says, can skew dates 3,000 to 4,000 years younger.

"That makes me think at least some of those dates—the younger dates, 24,000, 28,000—are almost certainly contaminated," he said.

Finlayson counters that his analysis ruled out contamination of the sample from the higher levels.

Delson and Harvati, the Nature commentators, say Finlayson and colleagues were correct to cite 28,000 years ago as the youngest date.

"There are just too many instances of dates younger than 28,000 years that are out of order, implying that these dates might not be reliable," they write.

"More extensive sampling of the in situ [unremoved] hearth and surroundings might resolve this issue."

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