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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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. Nature, 512(7514), p.306.
- 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. Heliyon, 3(11), p.e00435.
- 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
- 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 Sciences, 114(40), pp.10606-10611.
- 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 international, 431, pp.88-103.
- 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. Boreas, 41(4), pp.527-545.
- 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
- 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”. science, 335(6065), pp.167-167.
- 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 & evolution, 3(2), p.207.