Paleolithic Neanderthal Research: New data and approaches
The extinction of the Neanderthals is a question that researchers have not yet been able to answer definitively. Many data are being analyzed at the same time, and since there is no tangible evidence for each hypothesis that the researchers put forward, new branches are constantly being formed. The location and timing of the extinction of Homo neanderthalensis are two problems that plague paleoanthropologists. Each discovery raises new questions and challenges previous assumptions. The finds in the Greek area and Russia are among those that open a new path in the search for truth. From them, new information and discussions about Neanderthals and their disappearance are constantly emerging.
The positions in the Greek area have proven to be very important in the effort to untangle the tangle of prehistory. These areas are located at a critical crossroads and are therefore considered "bridges" over which modern man passed on his way to the Balkans and the rest of Europe (Harvati K., 2010). The two sites associated with the extinction of Neanderthals are located in the Mani Peninsula and are now considered some of the last strongholds of this species.
The first site is called Lakonis 1 and is a cave on the Mani Peninsula, as well as some other karst formations that have collapsed (Panagopoulou et al., 2002). Research on this site began in 1999, and it consists of five different layers, the first of which is dated to 82.000 B.P., while the last has traces of overlapping hearths, testifying to intensive use and continuous residence of human groups in the caves. The finds date to the Middle Palaeolithic and extend to the Upper Palaeolithic. The artefacts from the site appear to be of very good quality, and although Upper Palaeolithic elements predominate in the Levallois technique, there are also some Middle Palaeolithic types. The site has yielded 2,746 artefacts from the early Upper Palaeolithic, as well as bone fragments, jaw fragments, and single teeth, mainly from herbivorous animals, but also specimens of land snails. These are food remains and reveal the eating habits of the time. The most valuable find from the site is a tooth belonging to a Neanderthal man, found in an Upper Palaeolithic context, where it is dated to 38-44,000 years B.P. These remains are very important because it is one of the few finds that place the Neanderthal in the Upper Palaeolithic period.
Another important site in the Greek region is the cave of Kalamakia, a place on the coast (Harvati et al., 2013). The archaeological remains, about four metres thick, date back to the first occupation of the cave by Homo neanderthalensis immediately after the retreat of the sea 75,000-80,000 years ago and prove its use until about 40,000 years B.P. The cave at Kalamakia has not been inhabited since then, as a cairn seals the entrance. The techniques of the site are Mousterian, but also with the Levallois technique. At the same time, there are 14 paleoanthropological remains such as teeth or skull fragments attributed to Neanderthals. Considering that this particular cave appears to have been inhabited by groups of this species up to 40,000 years B.P., where the last of the species is now more securely dated, it appears that Neanderthals did indeed use the Greek area as one of their last refuges.
However, these sites do not yet provide the information necessary to draw firm conclusions about the fate of the last Neanderthals in Greece. The lithological tradition of the Greek area during this particular period seems to be very rich and special, which could be due to the diversity of the environment offered by a region like Greece (Harvati et al., 2019). It is difficult to say with certainty whether Neanderthals used these areas as homes shortly before their extinction and to what extent they interacted with Homo sapiens in these places. Although the sample is quite small, a transition from the Middle to the Upper Palaeolithic appears to have occurred in the Greek area (Harvati K., 2010). The discussion is open, and more certain conclusions will be drawn as the research continues.
Another area that is being researched as one of the last refuges of Neanderthals is present-day Russia. A geographical location with an excessive cold could not host a population that has no means to adapt to this climate. So, while modern humans could live there thanks to technological advances such as clothing, Neanderthals would certainly have preferred warmer areas. However, a great debate has arisen as to whether some finds dating back to 35,000 years before our era belong to one of the last populations of Homo neanderthalensis.
At the site in Byzovaya, a place on a river bank, 300 stone tools were found (Slimak et al., 2011). Excavators disagree as to whether the deposition of the finds were overlapping events or a single event. The site was first described by Guslitser et al. in 1965 and excavated several times by Russian archaeologists, later by a Russian-Norwegian team until 1996, and by a Russian-French team until 2007. The predominant tools are scrapers made of scales. If the stone settings of the site are of Neanderthal origin, as is the case in the rest of Europe, then we are dealing with a unique case of survival of a group, in a situation that is not ideal. Even though it has not yet been determined whether the site was inhabited by Neanderthals or not, the stoneware finds are theoretically attributed to them because of their similarity to other finds of this species in different regions (Zwyns et al., 2012). Considering the dating to 35,000 years B.C., this area could be considered one of the last refuges of this species.
While the last traces are found in Portugal, central and southern Spain and refer to a period of 30,000 to 27,000 years before the present, it is now believed that some Neanderthal groups found refuge in Greece and Siberia. At present, however, these are only simple theories and indications, so research should be intensified to draw more certain conclusions.
Harvati Katerina. (2010). Neanderthals revisited. Springer. Harvati, K., Darlas, A., Bailey, S., Rein, T., El Zaatari, S., & Fiorenza, L. et al. (2013). New Neanderthal remains from Mani peninsula, Southern Greece: The Kalamakia Middle Paleolithic cave site. Journal Of Human Evolution, 64(6), 486-499. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhevol.2013.02.002 Harvati, K., Röding, C., Bosman, A., Karakostis, F., Grün, R., & Stringer, C. et al. (2019). Apidima Cave fossils provide earliest evidence of Homo sapiens in Eurasia. Nature, 571(7766), 500-504. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1376-z Panagopoulou, E., Karkanas, P., Tsartsidou, G., Kotjabopoulou, E., Harvati, K., & Ntinou, M. (2002). Late Pleistocene Archaeological and Fossil Human Evidence from Lakonis Cave, Southern Greece. Journal Of Field Archaeology, 29(3/4), 323. https://doi.org/10.2307/3250896 Slimak, L., Svendsen, J., Mangerud, J., Plisson, H., Heggen, H., Brugère, A., & Pavlov, P. (2011). Late Mousterian Persistence near the Arctic Circle. Science, 332(6031), 841-845. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1203866 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. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1209908
Figure 1: Björklund T. (2018). Portrait of Neanderthal woman. [Visual painting]. Retrieved from: https://steemit.com/art/@cultureshock/these-neanderthal-character-studies-by-tom-bjoerklund-look-awesome Figure 2: Jacobsen M. (2004). Reconstruction of a Neanderthal woman. [Live Reconstruction]. Retrieved from: https://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.0020449 Figure 3: McNally J. (n.d.) Head comparison between Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis. [Photoshop]. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20211008-what-if-other-human-species-hadnt-died-out