Seven thousand years of cultural sharing in Europe between Neanderthals and modern humans

Two years ago material excavated from the Bacho Kiro cave in Bulgaria revealed that anatomically modern humans (AMH) had lived there between 44 and 47 ka ago: the earliest known migrants into Europe. Bacho Kiro contains evidence of occupancy by both Neanderthals and AMH. This discovery expanded the time over which Europe was co-occupied by ourselves and Neanderthals. The latter probably faded from the scene as an anatomically distinct group around 41 to 39 ka, although some evidence suggests that they lingered in Spain until ~37 ka and perhaps as late as 34 to 31 ka in the northern Ural mountains at the modern boundary of Europe and Asia. For most of Europe both groups were therefore capable of meeting over a period of seven to eight thousand years.

Aside from interbreeding, which they certainly did, palaeoanthropologists have long pondered on a range of tools that define an early Upper Palaeolithic culture known as the Châtelperronian, which also spans the same lengthy episode. But there have been sharp disagreements about whether it was a shared culture and, if so, which group inspired it. Evidence from the Grotte du Renne in eastern France suggests that the Neanderthals did abandon their earlier Mousterian culture to use the Châtelperronian approach early in the period of dual occupancy of Europe.

Dated appearances in France and NE Spain of Neanderthal fossils (black skulls), Châtelperronian artefacts (grey circles) and proto-Aurignacian artefacts (white squares) in different time ‘slots’ between 43.4 and 39.4 ka. (Credit: Djakovic et al., Fig. 3)

Igor Djakovic of Leiden University in the Netherlands , Alastair Key of Cambridge University, UK, and Marie Soressi, also of Leiden University have undertaken a statistical analysis of the geochronological and stratigraphic context of artefacts at Neanderthal and AMH sites in France and NW Spain during the co-occupancy period (Djakovic, I., Key, A. & Soressi, M. 2022. Optimal linear estimation models predict 1400–2900 years of overlap between Homo sapiens and Neandertals prior to their disappearance from France and northern Spain. Scientific Reports, v. 12, article  15000; DOI: 10.1038/s41598-022-19162-z). Their study is partly an attempt to shed light on the ‘authorship’ of the novel technology. The results suggest that the Châtelperronian (Ch) started around 45 ka and had disappeared by ~40.5 ka, along with the Neanderthals themselves. Early AMH artefacts are known as proto-Aurignacian (PA) and bear some resemblance to those of Châtelperronian provenance. The issue revolves around 3 conceivable scenarios: 1. the earliest AMH migrants brought the PA culture with them that Neanderthals attempted to copy, leading to their Ch tools; 2. Neanderthals independently invented the Ch methodology, which AMH adopted to produce PA artefacts; 3. both cultures arose independently.

Djakovic and colleagues have found that the data suggest that the proto-Aurignacian first appeared in the area at around 42.5 ka. Maps of dated human remains and artefacts for six 400-year time ranges from 43.4 to 39.4 ka show only Neanderthal remains and Châtelperronian artefacts from the earliest range (a in the figure). Two sites with proto-Aurignacian artefacts appears in NW Spain during the next ‘slot’ (b) then grow in numbers (c to e) relative to those of Châtelperronian provenance, which are not present after 40 ka (f) and neither are Neanderthal remains. These data suggest that local Neanderthals may have made the technological breakthrough before the appearance of the AMH proto-Aurignacian culture, which supports scenario 2 but not 1. They also suggest that the sudden appearance of Ch in France and Spain and the abandonment of earlier Neanderthal artefacts known as Mousterian could indicate that the Ch culture may have been introduced by Neanderthals migrating into the area, perhaps from further east where they may have been influenced by the earliest known European AMH in Bulgaria: i.e. tentative support for 1 or 2.

However, well documented as Djakovic et al.’s study is, it considers only 17 sites across only a fraction of Europe and a mere 28 individual artefacts each from Neanderthal and AMH associations (56 altogether). More sites and data are bound to emerge. But the study definitely opens exciting new possibilities for cultural ‘cross fertilisation’ as well as the proven physical exchange of genetic material: the two seem very likely to go hand-in-hand. Seven thousand years (~350 generations) of mutual dependence on the resources of southern Europe surely signifies too that the initially distinct groups did not engage in perpetual conflict or ecological competition, as with small numbers of both one or the other would have been extinguished within a few generations.

 See also: Devlin, H. 2022. Neanderthals and modern humans may have copied each other’s tools. The Guardian, 13 October 2022; Davis, N. 2020. Humans and Neanderthals ‘co-existed in Europe for far longer than thought’. The Guardian, 11 May 2020.

Improved dating sheds light on Neanderthals’ demise

As Earth Pages reported in December 2011 a refined method of radiocarbon dating that removes contamination by younger carbon has pushed back the oldest accessible 14C dates. Indeed, materials previously dated using less sophisticated methods are found to be significantly older. This has led archaeologists to rethink several hypotheses , none more so than those concerned with the relationship in Europe between anatomically modern humans (AMH) and Neanderthals, especially the extinction of the latter.

The team of geochronologists at Oxford University who pioneered accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) of carbon isotopes, together with the many European archaeologists whose research has benefitted from it, have now published results from 40 sites across Europe that have yielded either Neanderthal remains or the tools they are thought to have fashioned (Higham, T. and 47 others. The timing and spatiotemporal patterning of Neanderthal disappearance. Nature, v. 512, p. 306-309) . One such site is Gorham’s Cave in the Rock of Gibraltar where earlier dating suggested that Neanderthals clung on in southern Iberia until about 25 ka. Another hypothesis concerns the so called Châtelperronian tool industry which previous dating at the upper age limit of earlier radiocarbon methodology could not resolve whether or not it preceded AMH colonisation of Europe; i.e. it could either have been a Neanderthal invention or copied from the new entrants. Most important is establishing when AMH first did set foot in previously Neanderthal’s exclusive territory and for how long the two kinds of human cohabited Europe before the elder group met its end.

Deutsch: Rekonstruierter Neandertaler im Neand...
Reconstruction of Neanderthal life from the Neandertahl Museum(credit: Wikipedia)

The new data do not quash the idea of Neanderthals eking out survival almost until the last glacial maximum in the southernmost Iberian Peninsula, since material from Gorham’s Cave could not be dated. However, occupation levels at another site in southern Spain in which Neanderthal fossils occur and that had been dated at 33 ka turned out to be much older (46 ka). So it is now less likely that Neanderthals survived here any longer than they did elsewhere.

Neanderthal remains are generally associated with a tool kit known as the Mousterian that is not as sophisticated as that carried by AMH at the same time. Of the Mousterian sites that yielded AMS ages, the oldest (the Hyaena Cave in Devon, Britain) dates to almost 50 ka. The youngest has a 95% probability of being about 41 ka old. Of course, Neanderthals may have survived until later, but there is no age data to support that conjecture. The earliest known AMH remains in Europe are those associated with the so-called Uluzzian tool industry of the Italian peninsula. In southern Italy Mousterian tools are replaced by Uluzzian between about 44.8 and 44.0 ka, while Mousterian culture was sustained in northern Italy until between 41.7 to 40.5 ka.

Châtelperronian stone tools
Châtelperronian stone tools (credit: Wikipedia)

Mousterian tool from France
Mousterian blade tool from France (credit: Wikipedia)

Châtelperronian tools associated with Neanderthal remains occur in south-western France and the Pyrenees. The new AMS dating shows that the culture arose at about the same time (~45 ka) as the Uluzzian tool industry began in Italy and ended in those areas where it was used at about the same time (~41 ka) as did the more widespread Mousterian culture. So the question of whether Neanderthals copied stone shaping techniques from the earliest Uluzzian-making AMH more than 500 km to the east, or invented the methods themselves remains an open question. But does it matter as regards the cognitive abilities of Neanderthals? Copying methodology is part and parcel of the success and survival of succeeding AMH, but o too is the capacity to invent useful novelties from scratch. So, yes it does matter, for Neanderthals had sustained the Mousterian culture for tens to hundreds of thousand years with little change.

The upshot of these better data on timing is that AMH and Neanderthals co-existed in Europe for between 2.6 to 5.4 ka; as long as the time back from now to the Neolithic and early Bronze Age. Even allowing for low population density to make contacts only occasional, this is surely too long for systematic slaughter of Neanderthals by AMH. Yet it gives plenty of time for two-way transmission of cultural and symbolic activities, and even for genetic exchanges: assimilation as well as out-competition.

Incidentally, Scientific American’s September 2014 issue is partly devoted to broader issues of human evolution (Wong, K. (editor) The Human Saga. Scientific American, v. 311(No 3), p. 20-75) with a focus on new developments. These cover: a revised time line; the emerging complexity of hominin evolution  by veteran palaeoanthropologist Bernard Wood.; the influence of climate change; by Peter de Menocal; cultural evolution in the broad hominin context by Ian Tattersall; a discussion of hominin mating arrangements by Blake Edgar; two contributions on cooperation versus competition among hominins by Frans de Wall and GGry Stix; two articles on recent biological and future cultural  evolution by John Hawks and Sherry Turkle (interview).

Hominin round-up

The skull of Australopithecus africanus so-cal...
Australopithecus africanus from Sterkfontein cave, South Africa. Image via Wikipedia

Strontium isotopes and australopithecine habits

Viewers of Channel 4’s Time Team will be used to seeing eating habits and places of habitation being derived from strontium isotopic analyses of the teeth of modern humans found by archaeologists. The methods enabled scientists to work out where ‘Ötzi the Iceman’, whose mummified remains were found on the alpine border of Austria and Italy, hailed from: it was most likely to have been the South Tyrol province of Italy. Other isotopes (nitrogen and carbon) shows that he was predominantly vegetarian; i.e. he was neither a hunter, nor an especially privileged member of Tyrolean Chalcolithic society.

The same methods offer insights into the life styles of far earlier hominins and has recently been used on teeth of australopithecines (Australopithecus africanus and Paranthropus robustus) found in the famous Sterkfontein and Swartkrans caves South Africa (Copeland, S.R. et al. 2011. Strontium isotope evidence for landscape use by early hominins. Nature, v. 474, p. 76-78). The caves formed in Precambrian dolomites and it was expected that all the teeth would show signs that the individuals from whose jaws they were collected lived their entire lives in a small tract of dolomites (~30 km2) surrounding the caves. For large individuals that was indeed the case, but teeth from smaller fossils show 87Sr/86Sr ratios that are significantly different from those characteristic of local rocks and soils. That suggests the smaller individuals came from further afield than the restricted tract of carbonate strata. Although pelvic remains are normally the best guide to the sex of primate fossils, they are less frequently found than those of crania and dentition. Size variations of adults in a primate species, however, may indicate sexual dimorphism – larger males than females – and this is well-accepted for australopithecines. The implication is that for both species males had small home ranges on the dolomites, or that they preferred that tract. Yet females had dispersed from their parental groups and moved into the area.

Most living primates do not show this kind of sexual dispersion pattern, termed male philopatry,  it being common among modern humans, chimpanzees and bonobos. In the case of the australopithecines that were being studied, both were diminutive creatures living in open savannah with risks of predation from a range of large carnivores. Perhaps the bands living in the dolomite area had better refuges in caves than those elsewhere, and therefore able to attract females.

Arctic Neanderthals

Mousterian Point
A Mousterian stone point, possibly for a spear. Image via Wikipedia

The last Neanderthals known to have been alive were close to the southernmost limit of Europe, in caves on the Rock of Gibraltar at about 24 ka, shortly before the last glacial maximum. Their remains have been found in a >6000 km west-east zone at temperate latitudes, south of 50°N, which extended from western Europe to the Denisova cave in the Altai republic of Russia (50°N, 87°E). This suggests that they subsisted in deciduous woodland and temperate steppe, diffusing southwards as conditions cooled during 2 or 3 past glacial periods. Consequently, sites at higher northern latitudes that preserve only cultural remains – Palaeolithic tools – have hitherto been regarded as signs of fully modern human occupation; it takes considerable skill to distinguish Neanderthal from early modern human artefacts, which are very similar during the time of overlapping occupation (~40-30 ka). A site in northern Siberia at Byzovaya  in the Polar Urals, close to the Arctic circle, is a case in point. A French, Norwegian and Russian team of archaeologists re-examined the site (Slimak, L. et al. 2011. Late Mousterian persistence near the Arctic Circle. Science, v. 332, p. 841-845) and dated it to between 31-34 ka. They also analysed a suite of stone tools, finding that they are directly comparable with Mousterian (Middle Palaeolithic) implements from western Europe rather than products of modern human’s industry of similar antiquity. At that time high-latitude climate was well on its way to frigid, dry conditions (there were no substantial continental ice sheets in northern Russia). The animal remains found at the site were dominated by those of mammoth, with minor proportions of other cold-steppe large mammals, such as woolly rhino, musk ox, horse and bear.

A notable feature of the results is that they suggest that Neanderthals, or others people with a Mousterian culture, were occupying this bleak terrain at roughly the same time as modern humans, who left considerably richer suites of artefacts, including tools, ornaments and figurines carved from bone and ivory, but were after more or less the same prey species. Both groups clearly were able to cope with and thrive on the harsh conditions, until recently only within the scope of highly specialised cultures such as the Innuit and original Siberian peoples. The dating shows that whoever produced and used the Mousterian tools not only shared the terrane with modern humans, but lingered until well after the previously accepted time (~37 ka) of the Neanderthals’ demise except for a few refuges in the Iberian Peninsula and Balkans. Despite the occupation of northern Siberia by different cultural groups, until their bones are found who they were is not certain. Denisova Cave showed that Neanderthals and the genetically different Denisovans co-occupied temperate central Siberia (see Other rich hominin pickings in the May 2010 issue of EPN) so there are currently two options.