It’s Europe, 48,000 years ago and things are not going well for Homo neanderthalensis.
A deteriorating climate in Central Europe forced both them and the newly arrived Homo sapiens to abandon almost the entire continent. They retreated in Spain whilst we returned to the Middle East.
When the climate returned to normal 1,000 years later it’s Homo sapiens who reaped the benefits. The Eastern Mediterranean improved before Western Europe, allowing Middle Eastern humans to spread into the continent whilst neanderthals are still trapped in Spain.
By the time they did return to their homeland they found humans already firmly established and they can’t out-compete them. They cannot live in their African brother’s shadow.
So they’re forced to retreat to marginal environments, living on the edge of the human’s territory. Some returned to Spain in a hope to stave off the inevitable. But it was not enough and eventually they succumb to extinction, disappearing ~35, 000 – 29,000 years ago.
But this was not the end of their story.
The Mousterian – a technological industry produced by neanderthals – has recently been found at Byzovaya in the Ureal mountains, near the Arctic circle.
Along with the tools were reindeer and mammoth bones, which bore the signs they had been butchered by Mousterian hunters.
Using radiocarbon dating and optical stimulation on the sediments the finds were encased in and the bones they’d damaged, the archaeologists were able to work out that the site was formed 28, 000 years ago.
The implications of this are many, particularly for those who suggest it was the primitive nature of the Mousterian that led to the neanderthal’s extinction. If it could let them hunt and kill in the far north, can it really be so backwards?
This paints a fascinating picture of the last neanderthals. Driven to the edge by modern humans overtaking their European habitat, they head north in the hope of respite. There, they find new life in their technology, along with mammoths – their favoured prey.
With such a food source they’re able to outlive the last of their kin to the south, but even such resourceful people could not survive forever. Maybe the climate on top of the world took a turn for the worse, maybe the mammoths left, or maybe there simply was not enough of them left to keep the population going….
Whatever the story, the last of the neanderthals – who had tenaciously fought off extinction at the ends of the earth – eventually succumbed.
|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|