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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.

To the researchers' surprise, however, they uncovered more human remains beneath those of the Neandertals in both caves. These ancient bones dated to an era that stretched from 80,000 to 130,000 years ago. From the deepest layers of dirt beneath the cave floors, which accumulated more than 130,000 years ago, they again found Neandertal bones.

The finding indicated that Skhul and Kafzeh—and, presumably, much or all of the surrounding region—passed from human hands back into Neandertal control between 65,000 and 80,000 years ago.

Humans were apparently unsuccessful in their first bid to take over the region.

A Reason for Return

What caused ownership of the caves to flip-flop? Where did the Neandertals retreat to when they first surrendered the region to the newcomers from Africa? And what made the Neandertals reclaim the caves later? Bar-Yosef and Shea set out to answer these questions.

Based on their analysis of the tools and hearths made by the early residents of Israel, the researchers concluded that modern humans didn't use superior technology or intelligence to take over the site. The two groups seem to have been evenly matched in those departments.

Neandertals "were not dumb," Bar-Yosef said. "They weren't making any bone tools or seashell ornaments," like humans were at the time, but "they were digging their hearths exactly like modern humans," he said.

The slight differences in the sophistication of stone tools each group produced could not explain any superiority the humans may have had, the scientists said. And when it came to brute strength, the muscular Neandertals had a clear advantage.

Perhaps Mother Nature had a key role in the power play over the region. Climate changes may have coaxed humans out of Africa and into the region, and encouraged Neandertals already living there to spread outward into other parts of Asia and southeastern Europe.

But a climatic reversal also could have turned the tables. "Neandertal populations [may have been] driven south by rapid climate change around 75,000 years ago," Bar-Yosef said at the meeting in Boston.

Europe and Northern Asia were experiencing a cool era at that time, and even hearty Neandertals probably would have found the warmer climates to the south enticing. They pushed back into the region, probably from the Caucasus region to the north, and drove the humans then living there into retreat, Bar-Yosef suggested.

Only a second advance by humans thousands of years later—one that was more permanently successful—ultimately settled the question of which species would prevail.

In a separate presentation at the Boston meeting, archaeologist Mary Stiner of the University of Arizona in Tucson suggested that the later advance by humans might have been set in motion by growing population densities that forced some members of the species to push out of Africa.

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