New research shows that Neanderthals lived in southern Europe much more recently than previously thought.
Data from Gorham's Cave in Gibraltar has revealed populations of Neanderthals living there between 28-24,000 years ago, a time when modern humans also lived in Europe.
Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis , are an acient human species thought to have died out about 30,000 years ago. Many ideas have been suggested for their demise. Some scientists argue that incoming early modern human populations absorbed them through interbreeding, or out-competed them. Other data suggest that they became extinct due to disease, warfare or the impact of climate change.
'This new evidence from Gibraltar supports the idea that their extinction was a long and complex process, with Neanderthals surviving after 30,000 years in some locations,' said Chris Stringer, human evolution expert at the Natural History Museum.
'It is likely that there was no single factor behind the Neanderthals' demise. The reasons why they disappeared from the Middle East could be different from those in, say, the Ukraine, and different again from the factors involved in Britain, Germany or Gibraltar.'
Previous finds of Neanderthal artefacts from Gorham's Cave have been dated to 32,000 years ago. The new research dated material from deep excavations inside the cave, rather than material from external parts that are more exposed to erosion and contamination.
The team found that Neanderthals used the cave repeatedly over many thousands of years. The cave had plenty of ventilation for lighting fires, and daylight was able to penetrate deep into it. There is evidence of hearths and of cut and burnt bone. Conditions inside the cave had been changed many times, suggesting the Neanderthals cleaned and reused the area.
The environment outside the cave at the time the Neanderthals lived there was a Mediterranean one with diverse plants and animals. Evidence from the cave suggests they brought their prey into the cave to butcher and consume away from scavengers such as hyaenas.
These Neanderthals survived in isolated refuges in the southernmost point of Europe long after the arrival of modern humans and are the last currently recorded anywhere.
This research was published in the journal Nature .
The mystery of the disappearance of the Neanderthals features in Chris Stringer's new book Homo britannicus published by Penguin/Allen Lane on 5 October 2006.