We used to think the Iberian Peninsula was the Neanderthals’ final stronghold. It appeared that our species somehow failed to find a way into the region until about 35,000 years ago, leaving the last remaining Neanderthal population untouched. But stone tools from a cave in southern Spain may now sink that idea once and for all.
The tools suggest our species actually reached southern Spain 43,000 years ago, meaning Neanderthals may have vanished from Iberia soon after – at the same time that they disappeared from the rest of Europe.
Neanderthals lived in Europe for hundreds of thousands of years. Then just before 43,000 years ago, our species – Homo sapiens – arrived in the continent and quickly occupied the entire landmass, probably contributing to the disappearance of the Neanderthals.
But there is one corner of the continent where researchers have struggled to apply this simple model. It has proved difficult to find evidence that H. sapiens arrived in the Iberian Peninsula before about 35,000 years ago.
What’s more, some researchers say they have found stone tools that indicate Neanderthals were still living in Iberia thousands of years after they had vanished from the rest of Europe. At some sites, such as Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar, there are claims that Neanderthals survived until 32,000 years ago. They say Neanderthals clung on so long there because there were no H. sapiens to compete with.
But Francisco Jiménez-Espejo at the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, and his colleagues think that idea no longer stands after they reanalysed stone tools found at Bajondilla Cave near Malaga. They say they can see the moment when Neanderthal-style tools give way to distinctly human-style tools.
New radiocarbon dates from the cave suggest this transition happened 43,000 years ago – which would imply our species arrived in southern Iberia at the same time it reached other regions of Europe.
The result makes sense, says Katerina Douka at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Germany, who wasn’t involved in the study. “It seemed odd that it took modern humans anything from 8-10,000 years to expand [into the Iberian Peninsula],” she says.
“It is new, and very exciting,” says Rachel Wood at the Australian National University. A few years ago, Wood and her colleagues argued that there were problems with the dates placed on many of the Neanderthal sites in Iberia. Their reassessment suggested there was little evidence that Neanderthals clung on in the region after they had vanished from the rest of Europe.
But not everyone is convinced by the study. João Zilhão at the University of Barcelona insists that the current evidence suggests Neanderthals really did survive in South Iberia after they had vanished elsewhere. He says Jiménez-Espejo’s colleagues have previously argued that the crucial layers at Bajondillo Cave where Neanderthal stone tools gave way to H. sapiens tools have been disturbed and mixed. But if the layers are mixed, Zilhão says it’s simply impossible to put a precise date on the first appearance of H. sapiens in the area.
In response, Jiménez-Espejo and his colleagues say Zilhão is critical because of his support for the idea of a late Neanderthal presence in the area. They say that other recent studies by different research groups also support the idea that Neanderthals were abandoning sites in Iberia about 42,000 years ago.
One may find the paper here: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0753-6