<link rel="stylesheet" href="//fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Roboto%3A300%2C400%2C500%2C700%7CRoboto+Slab%3A400%2C700">Where did the last Neanderthals live? - Filthy Monkey Men
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40,000 years ago things were not going well for the Neanderthals. They’d been driven out of most of Europe1, perhaps by incoming Homo sapiens. But that wasn’t the end of their story, as the last Neanderthals still clung on at the fringes of the continent. Like the mountains of Spain, where some hung on for another few thousand years2.

The “Ebro frontier” marks the division between late Neanderthals in Spain and modern humans in the rest of Europe.

However, these weren’t the last Neanderthals. On the opposite end of the continent, Neanderthal tools have been found near the Arctic circle. These Russian findings suggest some fringe populations may have survived for another 10,000 years3!

Last Neanderthals in the Arctic?

In Europe, Neanderthals made the Mousterian “industry”1. It’s a toolkit notable for being pre-prepared, allowing for the rapid creation of tools when needed. Whilst it’s fascinating in its own right; what interests us here is that it has been found at Byzovaya, in the Ureal mountains3.

The location of Byzovaya and other late Neanderthal sites3. I crossed off Vindija as its age has been pushed back since this map was made4.

Byzovaya is spitting distance of the Arctic circle, which would make it the furthest north we know the Neanderthals got5. Which, again, is interesting but not the most fascinating thing about the site.

What is intriguing is the age of this northern refuge. Using radiocarbon dating and OSL, the archaeologists initially concluded that the site was formed ~28,000 years ago3. Subsequent studies pushed this back to 30-34,000 years ago6; but that would still make this the youngest known Neanderthal site would by several thousand years.

These last Neanderthals may have been clinging on at the edge of Europe, but it wasn’t the end of the world. The climate was relatively warm (considering it was a glacial period) around this time6. And the Neanderthals had abundant mammoth to hunt, their favourite food3.

But this couldn’t last. Eventually, the climate took a downwards turns, and the Neanderthals were soon gone for good3,6.

Doubting the last Neanderthals

However, not everyone is convinced the last Neanderthals at Byzovaya were anything of the sort. Remember, no fossil evidence has been found linking them to the site.

Instead, this designation is based entirely on the Mousterian tools. Which, the skeptics note, resemble Homo sapiens tools from nearby. Those humans, even use the same pre-prepared technology, explaining why this similarity7.

The nearby Upper Palaeolithic industry (left) compared with the allegedly Mousterian industry from Byzovaya (right)7.

Plus, there’s no other evidence of Neanderthals in the region; or even living that far north. However, there were many humans in the region; making their Neanderthal-like tools. Surely then, there is a good reason to be skeptical of Byzovaya7.

However, the archaeologists who initially identified Byzovaya as Neanderthal disagree with these skeptics (obviously). They point out although the nearby human tools might look Neanderthal, that similarity is only superficial8.

They use this to make the most passive-aggressive diagram I’ve ever seen in a paper, showing how such a cursory review also finds parallels with French tools around the time of farming. Surely the first French farmers weren’t ice age Russians8.

The shade!

The Upper Palaeolithic (left), allegedly Mousterian (centre) and Neolithic (right)8.

But whilst they can dispute those disputing that Byzovaya contains Neanderthal tools, they can’t change the fact that no other traces of Neanderthals have been found in the area5. The site remains an anomaly, so skepticism will (and should) remain until more is found.

Reliable last Neanderthals?

So whilst skepticism remains about Byzovaya, sites south of the Ebro frontier go back to being the last confirmed Neanderthals. Except even that is being challenged.

Like at Byzovaya, limited fossils in the region mean the main evidence for Neanderthal occupation comes from the tools. In some cases, the tools themselves aren’t even that clear. Instead, their assignation to “Neanderthals” stems from the fact that there were only Neanderthals in the area2.

But it turns out they weren’t.

At Bajondillo, Southern Spain, modern human tools have been found that date to before humans are supposed to have crossed the Ebro frontier. Suddenly, the idea that many of these late Neanderthal sites are actually late Neanderthals becomes a lot shakier9.

Red sites are definitely human, blue sites are definitely Neanderthal, grey are ambiguous

Of course, not all the sites in Southern Iberia are human, or ambiguous. A few clearly are Neanderthal. For now, these are the last Neanderthals we know of, living alongside humans at the edge of their territory9.

I do hope they got along.

References

  1. Higham, T., Douka, K., Wood, R., Ramsey, C.B., Brock, F., Basell, L., Camps, M., Arrizabalaga, A., Baena, J., Barroso-Ruíz, C. and Bergman, C., 2014. The timing and spatiotemporal patterning of Neanderthal disappearance. Nature512(7514), p.306.
  2. Zilhão, J., Anesin, D., Aubry, T., Badal, E., Cabanes, D., Kehl, M., Klasen, N., Lucena, A., Martín-Lerma, I., Martínez, S. and Matias, H., 2017. Precise dating of the Middle-to-Upper Paleolithic transition in Murcia (Spain) supports late Neandertal persistence in Iberia. Heliyon3(11), p.e00435.
  3. Slimak L, Svendsen JI, Mangerud J, Plisson H, Heggen HP, Brugère A, & Pavlov PY (2011). Late Mousterian persistence near the Arctic Circle. Science (New York, N.Y.), 332 (6031), 841-5 PMID: 21566192
  4. Devièse, T., Karavanić, I., Comeskey, D., Kubiak, C., Korlević, P., Hajdinjak, M., Radović, S., Procopio, N., Buckley, M., Pääbo, S. and Higham, T., 2017. Direct dating of Neanderthal remains from the site of Vindija Cave and implications for the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences114(40), pp.10606-10611.
  5. Nielsen, T.K., Benito, B.M., Svenning, J.C., Sandel, B., McKerracher, L., Riede, F. and Kjærgaard, P.C., 2017. Investigating neanderthal dispersal above 55° N in Europe during the last interglacial complex. Quaternary international431, pp.88-103.
  6. Heggen, H.P., Svendsen, J.I., Mangerud, J. and Lohne, Ø.S., 2012. A new palaeoenvironmental model for the evolution of the Byzovaya Palaeolithic site, northern Russia. Boreas41(4), pp.527-545.
  7. 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
  8. Slimak, L., Svendsen, J.I., Mangerud, J., Plisson, H., Heggen, H.P., Brugère, A. and Pavlov, P.Y., 2012. Response to “Comment on Late Mousterian Persistence near the Arctic Circle”. science335(6065), pp.167-167.
  9. Cortés-Sánchez, M., Jiménez-Espejo, F.J., Simón-Vallejo, M.D., Stringer, C., Francisco, M.C.L., García-Alix, A., Peláez, J.L.V., Odriozola, C.P., Riquelme-Cantal, J.A., Giráldez, R.P. and González, A.M., 2019. An early Aurignacian arrival in southwestern Europe. Nature ecology & evolution3(2), p.207.

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15 Comments

acollectionofatoms · 30th December 2011 at 12:26 am

Nice blog, its great to find someone else interested in the same things.
Thanks for the like.

    sahelanthropus · 30th December 2011 at 2:03 am

    It is a fascinating area of knowledge, it’s wrong that it’s rare to see someone else writing about similar stuff. Especially given that when I explain what the subject is to others, they’re very interested. It’s just they’ve never heard about this stuff before.

      acollectionofatoms · 30th December 2011 at 6:04 pm

      Yeah, its sad really. Evolution is the key to understanding our behavior but it’s taboo to some people, to apply it to people

        sahelanthropus · 30th December 2011 at 9:35 pm

        Fortunately I’m from the UK where I don’t have to deal with such a taboo normally (I did once have a creationist hairdresser). For most people they’re interested but just have never heard any of this stuff before. Hence starting a blog on the subject

        Wyrd Smythe · 8th January 2013 at 2:52 am

        Well, I’m quite glad you did. I’ve been meaning to come over and read for a while. Finally made it!

        Adam Benton · 11th January 2013 at 11:00 am

        Welcome. I hope you enjoy your stay

acollectionofatoms · 2nd January 2012 at 9:05 pm

In the U.S. theirs the Christian right and the Progressive left that don’t believe in evolution.
It must be good to live in the land of Darwin.

    sahelanthropus · 2nd January 2012 at 9:11 pm

    I do smile whenever I see him on our money, but it does make those encounters with creationists here – although thankfully rare – all the more disturbing.

cgosling · 5th January 2012 at 2:09 am

Well done. Keep up the current news. I’m sure there are those who think you are threatening their beliefs.

    sahelanthropus · 5th January 2012 at 11:27 am

    I’ve yet to encounter someone claiming that I am threatening their beliefs, but should such a situation occur I would probably relish the challenge.

eideard · 6th January 2012 at 1:58 pm

Delightful article.

    Eric Dondero · 4th July 2019 at 1:02 am

    Well written, quite informative. One learns a lot from this site. Certainly the 2nd best news site out there on human origins and paleontology.

Anonymous · 8th August 2015 at 1:10 pm

The Neanderthals were physically and culturally adapted to ice-age Europe, so it’s not inconceivable that they could live in ice-age North America. As for getting there, at that time there was a land connection between what is now Siberia and what is now Alaska (the sequestration of huge amounts of water in the glaciers, which at the time buried the site of present-day Chicago under at least half a mile of ice, dropped sea level enough to expose this land).

Anonymous · 8th August 2015 at 8:14 pm

its must be good to see the fusion at chromsome 2 showed genetic manipulation

Eric Dondero · 4th July 2019 at 1:01 am

What about that hybrid Neanderthal-Homo sapien boy they found in Portugal, dated to I believe 24,000 BP?

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