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ResearchBlogging.orgI previously discussed an article which suggested that the last members of Homo neanderthalensis retreated north into Russia prior to their eventual extinction. This conclusion was based upon the discovery of Mousterian tools – an industry produced by the neanderthals – at Byzovaya.

However, although I concluded my tale of these northern neanderthals it would seem the story is far from over. Two new papers have been recently published on the subject, one criticising the idea and another defending it.

The critical paper points out that there are nearby Upper Palaeolithic industries (made by Homo sapiens) that superficially resemble the Mousterian and it is those which have been discovered at Byzovaya and simply misidentified by the archaeologists who published the original paper.

Crucially, some these human-made tools resemble levallois points, despite not being made via the levallois technique. The levallois technique involves shaping a core prior to getting a flake from it, which is then used. Only neanderthals used this method and it is essentially used to define the Mousterian.

Given that the Upper Paleolithic industries include these levallois-like points then it could explain why some might mislabel it the Mousterian, despite actually being made by modern humans. This idea is given further support by the fact that the levallois points from Byzovaya don’t resemble your typical Mousterian example.

They also point out that there is no other evidence of neanderthals in the region, despite the fact that their presence at Byzovaya implies they’ve been there for several thousand years. Given this lack of precedence for the discovery surely, they say, their explanation is the most parsimonious one?

The nearby Upper Palaeolithic industry (left) compared with the allegedly Mousterian industry from Byzovaya (right).

The supporting paper hits back, noting that whilst the levallois examples from Byzovaya might not look like your typical Mousterian tool, there are examples of levallois points from elsewhere in Europe that it does resemble. As such, it can still be Mousterian despite its atypical appearence.

They also note that many of the tools used to define the Upper Palaeolithic, such as blades, are absent from this site. This casts doubt that they have simply misidentified the Upper Palaeolithic since it suggests there isn’t any Upper Palaeolithic there to begin with.

However toolkits can vary between sites, as I’ve said before, so the Upper Palaeolithic people may have stopped making blades when they arrived at Byzovaya and only used the Mousterian-like tools.

But this paper also casts doubt on the fact the nearby Upper Palaeolithic was Mousterian-like. Many of them were made in a different way or, whilst superficially similar to the Mousterian are sufficiently different for them to be easily told apart.

Can they really be so confident they can tell them apart, given how similar they appear in the comparison diagram above? Well yes. The tools from Kostenki in the comparison are from different sites and so they wouldn’t be mixed in a manner that could be easily confused with the Mousterian.

In otherwords, the comparison takes them out of context which makes them more similar than the really are. As a case in point this paper takes the Neolithic (which we know came much later) out of context and makes it appear similar to the Mousterian.

The Upper Palaeolithic (left), allegedly Mousterian (centre) and Neolithic (right)

Ultimately both papers make convincing arguments but I will go with the supporting paper in this instance. They’ve had a chance to examine all the fines whereas those making the counter-argument have not. As such it is less likely the supporting authors are mistaken.

That doesn’t mean they’re right – final confirming evidence is still required – it just means that when more evidence appears I predict that it will support their conclusion.

Slimak, L., Svendsen, J., Mangerud, J., Plisson, H., Heggen, H., Brugere, A., & Pavlov, P. (2012). Response to “Comment on Late Mousterian Persistence near the Arctic Circle” Science, 335 (6065), 167-167 DOI: 10.1126/science.1210211
Zwyns, N., Roebroeks, W., McPherron, S., Jagich, A., & Hublin, J. (2012). Comment on “Late Mousterian Persistence near the Arctic Circle” Science, 335 (6065), 167-167 DOI: 10.1126/science.1209908

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Millán Mozota · 30th January 2012 at 8:36 am

>>>>Ultimately both papers make convincing arguments but I will go with…

I dont share that idea.
The arguments from Zwyns et al feel “typologistically” out of present time, tecnological-unwise; and the Slimak et al arguments show a much more convincing “savoir-faire” and deep knowledge about lithic technology and UP/MP assemblages in the area.
OFC still remains the fact (always highlighted by Smilak et al.) that:
what’s been proven is the presence of a very typical (not in Bordes sense btw) Mousterian, but NOT the human population that made it.

    Adam Benton · 30th January 2012 at 1:32 pm

    I think Slimak et al. do a good job of showing that the similarities between their finds and the UP are fairly irrelevant, which I think gives their hypothesis slightly more support, as does the fact they’ve had a chance to examine both sets of finds.

    However, there are still some issues – as you and Zywns point out – and so ultimately I would have to say I don’t know whether the last neanderthals were found near the Arctic.

    Although I would give a slight favour to Slimak’s ideas, no conclusion can be reached with any level of confidence at this stage.

      Millan Mozota · 31st January 2012 at 12:58 pm

      You are right.
      No conclusion in the Neandertal-AMH issue.

      But a conclusion can be reached, for sure, in the tecno-cultural adscription of the lithics: They are as Mousterian as it can be any assemblage in the world. And they really dont seem related to Early Upper Paleolithic assemblages.

      The interesting thing (in my point of view) is that the two possibilities they leave open now –> are both fantastic and revolutionary:
      – Might they be neandertals
      – Might they be AMH using a very typical “Neadertal-in-Europe” tecnology and material culture.

      -implications of both scenarios are great and ground-shaking, from my point of view.

        Adam Benton · 31st January 2012 at 1:22 pm

        Indeed, I await further finds with great anticipation.

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