New evidence excavated from a cave floor in Gibraltar suggests that the oft-maligned Neanderthal was not nearly as inferior to modern humans as once thought. “It very significantly shows that the arrival of moderns into Europe did not spell the end of the Neanderthals,” says Clive Finlayson, a director at the Gibraltar Museum, an adjunct professor at U of T and lead author of the study published online in Nature earlier this fall.
The findings are based on a host of new artifacts recovered from Gorham’s Cave, a home to early humans for tens of thousands of years. Neanderthal fossils were not found, but in the cave’s hearth Finlayson and his team did discover animal remains as well as fragments of charcoal, flint and particular types of stone knives and tools that have been linked to Neanderthals. “The artifacts only tell us that the tools were left there, but we also found bones of butchered animals. The bones often had cut marks, as these guys cut the flesh off the carcass and the stone knives slipped into the bone,” explains Finlayson. “Put together, charcoal, bones and stones give us a Neanderthal barbecue.”
By dating the charcoal fragments, Finlayson says it’s clear Neanderthals used the cave until at least 28,000 years ago. This means they survived between 2,000 and 7,000 years longer than conventionally estimated, making Gorham’s Cave the last-known refuge of Neanderthals. Finlayson’s research also shows that small populations of Neanderthals and modern humans lived together in the region for about 4,000 years. This leads him to believe that the Neanderthals’ demise was due to climate change, as the world was cooling significantly at the time and Neanderthals were more anatomically suited to the warm forests of southern Europe than their more modern counterparts, he says. It may also mean there was more interaction and interbreeding between the two groups than thought: this may become clearer during Finlayson’s continued excavation of Gorham’s Cave. “Some of these chambers may contain burials. We will see.”