For more than a century, efforts have been made to answer the question of what caused the extinction of an entire species like Neanderthals. Research is carried out at both an archaeological and anthropological levels, with theories varying and always provoking great debate and controversy. Questions such as where, when and why Homo neanderthalensis disappeared intrigue researchers, with data constantly being overturned. The Paleolithic Neanderthal Research 101 series aims to discuss the causes that led the Neanderthals to extinction by examining archaeological evidence from various areas, as well as various theories by researchers who have dealt with this issue.
The series will be divided into the following chapters:
1. Old theories
2. Dating and topography
3. Correlation with Homo sapiens
4. Biological, social and environmental issues
5. New data and approaches
6. Non-ending conclusions
Dating and topography
The first two questions that concern the archaeologists about the extinction of Neanderthals are when they disappeared and where. These are two questions form the basis of the issue, before looking for the causes behind their extinction. First of all, based on the many recent findings of each region studied which differ in their dating, it is thought that Homo neanderthalensis did not disappear en masse due to an event, but there was a gradual decline and eventual extinction of their species. Nothing was provoked overnight, but it was a process that lasted for several millennia.
About 40,000 years ago, Neanderthals inhabited a large area of Europe. They spread from present-day Albania and Croatia to the Iberian Peninsula and north to some of the geographical territories of present-day England. Locations with findings dating back 40 kya (thousand years ago), also exist in Greece and in parts of Siberia. Climatically, that period is characterized by many fluctuations, but the Neanderthals throughout their existence showed the following preferences: initially in warm periods they lived mainly in areas of Central and Western Europe. Secondly, they never colonized the steppes of Eastern Europe and finally in cold periods a restriction was observed in the habitats of the Mediterranean (Finlayson, 2009). Neanderthals were resistant to cold, but could not adapt to the rapid drop in temperature, nor did they have technological achievements such as the clothing of Homo sapiens. As a result, their numbers had dropped significantly before they came in contact with modern man.
As Homo sapiens progressively continued to spread, coming from Eastern Europe and possibly using Greece as a transit point, Neanderthals experienced a geographical contraction and were confined to present-day France and the western Iberian Peninsula. About 30 kya, Homo sapiens spread throughout Europe, limiting Neanderthals to southern Portugal, Gibraltar and a small area of France, where the site of Saint Cesaire gave important archaeological discoveries (which will be analyzed in the next chapter). So, as temperatures fluctuated in extreme cold and modern humans had emerged, Neanderthals seemed to have found refuge in southwestern Europe. Conditions pushed them there and they tried to survive in those areas.
The Iberian Peninsula has been the focus of researchers for years, as archaeological and paleoanthropological data show a long and timeless presence of Neanderthals in the wider geographical area. In addition, dating results showing that Neanderthals inhabited those areas until after 30 ka BP (thousand years before present), lead to the conclusion that the last of the species were driven there before their extinction. Several theories are associated with this fact, most notably that of the "Ebro frontier" (Zilhão, 2000). According to it, Neanderthals survived in Andalusia longer than in the rest of Europe and more specifically up to 28,000 years ago. This hypothesis was first formulated by Vega in 1990. The theory holds that in Western Europe, the replacement of Neanderthals by moderns had not been the outcome of a gradual geographic progression of the latter but a punctuated process during which stable biocultural frontiers might have lasted for significant amounts of time. One such frontier, largely corresponding to a major biogeographical divide, would have been located along the Cantabro-Pyrenean mountains: for possibly as long as 10,000 years but certainly for at least some 5,000 years, the Ebro basin would have separated the Mousterian Neanderthals of Iberia from the Aurignacian Moderns of Cantabria, Aquitaine and northern Catalonia
The last Neanderthal paleoanthropological remains are found in Boquete de Zafarraya. It is a cave located in southern Spain, near Malaga. A large part of the cave has collapsed in mountain slope and the first excavations (between 1980 to 1983) took place in a crevice formed on the south side of the entrance. It was determined from a very early age the Mousterian type of the findings. In other words, these stone tools that belong to the Mousterian industry of stone carvings, which date from 160,000 to 40,000 before the present are associated with Homo neanderthalensis. The findings of fauna, and in particular those of predators and birds, combined with their vertical alternation with stone findings in the stratigraphy, indicate that the site was only seasonally used by people (Barroso & Hublin, 1994).
Most paleoanthropological remains come from its entrance and include adults and young people attributed to Neanderthals. One of the mandibles, discovered in 1983, is one of the best - if not the best - preserved specimens in Europe. The jaw has a clear Neanderthal morphology, although it is a relatively small person. This particular jaw dates back to 33,000 years before the present, while stonework of the site that is of Mousterian industry, with great use of the Levallois technique (type of stone knitting which developed about 250,000 to 300,000 years ago, during the Middle Paleolithic period), dates up to 30,000 years before the present. However, even scholars of the site themselves believe that there should be a reservation regarding dating (Wood et al., 2013).
The last traces of Neanderthals at the level of stone industry are found in the Gorham Cave in Gibraltar and date back to 24,000 years before the present. There are so far eight sites where prove a long-term presence of Neanderthals. The Mousterian industry was already confirmed by the excavations that took place between 1948 and 1954. The top layer with sample findings is related to one dating to 32 ka BP (before the present). The stonework of the Middle Paleolithic layers is within the Mousterian industry and is characterized by the use of disc-shaped repulsion for the processing of the core. After the use of AMS (Accelerator Mass Spectrometry, dating that involves accelerating the ions to extraordinarily high kinetic energies followed by mass analysis) for the cave, the survival of the Middle Paleolithic seems to survive up to 31 ka BP (Pettitt & Bailey, 2000). With the emergence of the Aurignacian industry (associated with European early modern humans) around 31-28 ka BP, the slow spread of the Upper Paleolithic south of the Ebro River is ascertained. This neither proves nor disproves Ebro Frontier theory.
Excavations from 1999 to 2005, at the deepest levels of the cave, indicate a permanent visit at the cave in time. In particular cleaning and reuse of the space is observed. For example, a firebox is confirmed during three stratigraphic uses. All these data show that the last Neanderthals of the cave could be there perhaps up to 24 ka BP. The lack of paleoanthropological findings prevents the cave from being associated with Homo neanderthalensis or Homo sapiens, but the tools of the Mousterian industry found are usually identified with Neanderthals in Europe. Gorham Cave can therefore be considered one of the last Neanderthals refugees.
In general, the dating of Neanderthals’ extinction varies from region to region. Homo neanderthalensis disappeared from east to west, with the spread of Homo sapiens following the same course. Its last traces are found in Portugal, central and southern Spain, Italy and date from 30,000 to 27,000 years ago. The problems faced by researchers are mainly the exact dating of the residues with many mistakes being made or the range being wide enough or the data not being sufficient for measurements. Another problem is that in many parts of the Mediterranean and especially in the Iberian Peninsula, there are findings of stone carvings that are associated with the Neanderthals, but there are no samples of paleoanthropological findings. These are the reasons why these theories about when and where the last Neanderthals disappeared do not give us a complete view.
Barroso, C., & Hublin, J. (1994). The Late Neanderthal site of Zafarraya (Andalucía, Spain). In J. Rodriguez-Vidal, Gibraltar during the Quaternary. (pp. 61-70). AEQUA Monografías 2.
Finlayson, C. (2009). Neanderthals and modern humans. Cambridge University Press.
Finlayson, C., Giles Pacheco, F., Rodríguez-Vidal, J., Fa, D., María Gutierrez López, J., & Santiago Pérez, A. et al. (2006). Late survival of Neanderthals at the southernmost extreme of Europe. Nature, 443(7113), 850-853. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature05195
Pettitt, P., & Bailey, R. (2000). AMS radiocarbon and Luminescence Dating df Gorham's and Vanguard caves, Gibraldar, and implications for the Middle and Upper Paleolithic transition in Iberia. In C. Stringer, N. Barton & C. Finlayson, Neanderthals on the Edge: Papers from a Conference Marking the 150th Anniversary of the Forbes' Quarry Discovery, Gibraltar. Oxbow Books.
Trinkaus, E. (2022). Saint-Césaire | anthropological and archaeological site, France. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 19 May 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/place/Saint-Cesaire.
Wood, R., Barroso-Ruíz, C., Caparrós, M., Jordá Pardo, J., Galván Santos, B., & Higham, T. (2013). Radiocarbon dating casts doubt on the late chronology of the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition in southern Iberia. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, 110(8), 2781-2786. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1207656110
Zilhão, J. (2000). The Ebro frontier: a model for the late extinction of Iberian Neanderthals. In C. Stringer, R. Barton & J. Finlayson, Neanderthals on the Edge: 150th anniversary conference of the Forbes' Quarry discovery, Gibraltar (pp. 111-121). Oxbow Books. Retrieved 18 May 2022, from http://www.bristol.ac.uk/archanth/staff/zilhao/ebrofrontier2000.pdf
Figure 1: Knight, C. (1911). Snowbound. [Oil on canvas]. Retrieved from: https://statenislandmuseum.tumblr.com/post/77200793326/snowbound-charles-r-knight-american-1847-1953
Figure 2: Descouens, D. (2010). Stone tools of Mousterian industry, associated with Neanderthals. [Photo]. Retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pointe_Moust%C3%A9rienne_MHNT_PRE_2009.0.205.4_De_Maret.jpg
Figure 3: Barroso, C. & Ruiz. (n.d.). A Neanderthal jaw from Zafarraya dating 33.000 BP. [Photo]. Retrieved from: https://www.nature.com/articles/nature.2013.12355
Figure 4: Gibraltar government. (n.d.) Part of the Gorham’s Cave complex. [Photo]. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/sep/28/gibraltar-cave-chamber-discovery-could-shed-light-on-neanderthals-culture