Neanderthals disappear from Iberian peninsula before modern human arrival

Posted by Past Horizons, on February 6, 2015

Reconstruction of a Neanderthal by Fabio Fogliazza. / Human Evolution Museum (MEH)-Junta de Castilla y León (Spain)

Reconstruction of a Neanderthal by Fabio Fogliazza. / Human Evolution Museum (MEH)-Junta de Castilla y León (Spain)

Ascientific article published in ‘Nature‘ in August 2014 revealed that European Neanderthals could have disappeared between 41,000 and 39,000 years ago. This was ascertained from the fossil remains found at archaeological sites located from the Black Sea to the Atlantic coastline of Spain.

In the Iberian Peninsula however, archaeologists have put forward new evidence from the El Salt site in Alicante, using  thermoluminescence (TL) and optically stimulated luminescence, to show that Neanderthals may have disappeared earlier than this, at around 45,000 years ago. They also suggest that other Iberian sites need to be re-evaluated in light of this evidence.

Process of disappearance is complex

Both conclusions are complementary and not contradictory,” says Bertila Galván, lead author of the study published in the ‘Journal of Human Evolution‘ and researcher at the Training and Research Unit of Prehistory, Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of La Laguna (ULL) (Tenerife, Spain). The study in Nature does recognise that the process of disappearance is complex and has regional peculiarities says Galván. This new study questions the existence of the Neanderthals in the Iberian Peninsula later than 43,000 years ago.

The ample record of lithic objects and remains of fauna (mainly goats, horses and deer), as well as the extensive stratigraphic sequence of El Salt spans the Neanderthal’s last 30,000 years of existence. Together with this new dating is the discovery of six teeth that probably belonged to a young Homo neanderthalensis adult and that “could represent an individual of one of the last groups of Neanderthals which occupied the site and possibly the region,” say the scientists.

Progressive weakening of population

Palaeoenvironmental and archaeological data, point to “a progressive weakening of the population, or rather, not towards an abrupt end, but a gradual one, which must have been drawn out over several millennia, during which the human groups dwindled in number,” as Cristo Hernández, another of the study’s authors and researcher at ULL. These results are in agreement with current chronometric data from other sites in the Iberian Peninsula.

This gradual disappearance coincided with a change in the climate creating colder and more arid environmental conditions, “which must have had an effect on the lives of these diminishing populations,” adds Hernández. In this case anatomically modern humans appear to have had no role in Neanderthal disappearance.

The new dating establishes depopulation in this region between the last Neanderthals and the first anatomically modern humans. This fact has been archaeologically proven in a sedimentary hiatus that was found not only in El Salt, “but also in other sites on the Iberian Peninsula,” conclude the researchers.

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