Neanderthals and Modern Humans Coexisted Longer Than Thought

Gordon Simons (
Wed, 30 Aug 1995 10:15:00 -0400 (EDT)

Neanderthals and Modern Humans Coexisted Longer Than Thought

By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD - The New York Times: August 29, 1995

As familiar as Neanderthals may seem, with their robust bodies, stooped
shoulders and beetle brows, the very image of the extinct cave dwellers of
popular lore, their place in human evolution and their fate remain deep

Like modern humans, Neanderthals were presumably descendants of archaic
Homo sapiens, but evolved into a distinct branch of the human family over
several hundred thousand years, living in relative isolation in Europe and
parts of the Middle East. Their br ains were as large as those of modern
humans, if not a little larger. But they appeared to be deficient in tool
technology, art and other innovative turns of the mind.

So they were no match for the taller, more slender modern humans who
probably migrated from Africa through the Middle East some 120,000 years
ago, proceeded into southeastern Europe and western Asia and eventually
arrived in western Europe about 40,000 ye ars ago. These clever newcomers,
usually known as Cro-Magnons but in every respect physically like people
today, soon replaced Neanderthals in their European homeland, driving them
to extinction, but apparently not as swiftly as previously thought.

New fossil evidence shows that the enigmatic Neanderthals, the last
competitors to modern humans in their ascent to global dominion, were
still living in Croatia as recently as 33,000 years ago and in southern
Spain only 30,000 years ago, about 6,000 year s after it was assumed they
had died out.

Anthropologists said the new findings might not resolve the many questions
about the origin of Neanderthals, their exact place on the family tree or
the reasons they lost out in the competition with modern human beings. But
the research has established that Neanderthals and modern Homo sapiens
coexisted in western Europe for at least 10,000 years and, scientists
said, could have shared habitats in what must have been a complex
relationship, possibly involving some interbreeding as well as relentless
competition. Until now, the last evidence for a Neanderthal was 36,000
years ago, at an archeological site near the village of St. Cesaire in

"The existence of Neanderthal populations in southern Spain long after
modern humans arrived in the north suggests that Neanderthals were not
quickly replaced due to the overwhelming superiority of modern humans, as
many archeologists have contended," Dr. Jean-Jacques Hublin, director of
research at the Museum of Man in Paris, said last week in reporting the
dating of fossil bones from a Neanderthal site in Spain.

Hublin and a team of Spanish archeologists and French dating specialists
made their discovery at Zafarraya Cave near the Mediterranean coastal city
of Malaga. They uncovered a well-preserved jaw with characteristics
typical of Neanderthals, stone tools of the Mousterian style associated
with Neanderthals and the teeth of an ibex, perhaps the prey of
Neanderthal hunters or scavengers. Radiocarbon and thorium-uranium dating
tests on the bones and teeth, combined with an analysis of the tool
technology, led to the conclusion that Neanderthals had been living there
as recently as 30,000 years ago.

The results of the dating tests are being reported in the September-
October issue of Archaeology, a magazine of the Archaeological Institute
of America. The Transactions of the Academy of Sciences of Paris is
publishing a more detailed description of the work by Hublin and other
explorers of Zafarraya Cave, including two Spanish archeologists, Dr.
Cecilio Barroso Ruiz and Dr. Paqui Medina Lara.

Dr. Erik Trinkaus, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico in
Albuquerque and author of several books on Neanderthals, said the new date
was based on careful research and established "the last Neanderthals that
we know of." If any more recent fo ssils should turn up, they would
probably also be in Spain or Portugal, he said, because these were
"geographical cul-de-sacs" where Neanderthals must have survived longer,
out of the way of the intrusive modern humans.

In the rest of Europe by this time, Trinkaus noted, the presence of modern
humans had spread from east to west; there is no evidence that people
could have crossed from Africa into Europe by way of Gibraltar. Though the
extent of mixing between the modern and Neanderthal populations is not
known, Trinkaus said that the disappearance of Neanderthals could be
attributed in part to interbreeding as well as competition.

Once it was suspected that Neanderthals and modern Homo sapiens were
sufficiently distinct species and thus could not have interbred - or as
the anthropologists often put it, "exchanged genes."

Now anthropologists lean to the view that the relationships between the
two human groups might have been close enough for some interbreeding,
perhaps like the kinship of dogs and wolves today.

Dr. Fred H. Smith, a paleontologist at Northern Illinois University in
DeKalb who is an authority on Neanderthal history, said the new date for
the last Neanderthals was not too surprising because other discoveries had
been pointing to similar pockets of populations holding out against
extinction. At the Vindija site in Croatia, Smith said, he recently dated
Neanderthal fossils at 33,000 years old and established that the two human
populations were living at the same time in that region.

Recent excavations in Israel suggest that Neanderthals and modern humans
might have overlapped there as early as 100,000 years ago. Their stone
tools and bones have been found in caves only a few miles apart. Whether
the two human groups were exact contem poraries in the region, or moved in
and out without meeting, has not been determined. Nor is it possible to
determine what their relations were with each other, if they did share the
place at the same time.

Smith said that such discoveries, along with the recent date for the
Zafarraya fossils, are contributing to the ferment in Neanderthal studies.
"Things are getting exciting again," he said.