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The Last Neandertals Volume 48 Number 5, September/October 1995
by Scott E. Mardis

New dates from Zafarraya Cave, near Malaga in southern Spain, prove that Neandertals were alive millennia after scholars assumed they had become extinct, according to Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Musée de l'Homme in Paris. The evidence also suggests Neandertals coexisted with modern humans in Western Europe for nearly 10,000 years and were not replaced quickly because of the overwhelming superiority of the modern groups, as many archaeologists have contended.

Except for teeth from upper levels, the adult and juvenile human remains are from a fireplace area in the lowest deposits of the cave. The best preserved specimen is a mandible lacking a prominent chin and with a space behind the molars, both typical Neandertal characteristics.

Excavations at the cave have yielded Mousterian tools, a type traditionally associated with European Neandertals, and ibex bones. That 90 percent of the animal remains are of ibex suggests specialized hunting or scavenging, but bones of carnivores are also present. The predators may have been regular dwellers in the cave while human occupation there was sporadic.

Bone samples were subjected to carbon dating, and ibex teeth to thorium/uranium (Th/U) dating. A sample from an ibex tooth found with Neandertal remains gave a Th/U date of 33,400 before present (B.P.). Two other samples were not directly associated with Neandertal remains. One, from an upper level, yielded a carbon date of 29,800 B.P. and a Th/U date of 27,000 B.P., while the other, from a middle level, had nearly identical dates of 31,800 and 31,700 B.P. These data confirm a single date of 30,930 B.P. obtained from a Mousterian deposit at the Portuguese site of Figueira Brava.

The 33,400 B.P. date is the latest ever obtained for Neandertals. A shovel-shaped upper incisor (a common Neandertal trait) found in an upper level and the fact that stone tools in the upper levels are Mousterian suggest that Neandertals survived in this part of Spain as late as 30,000 B.P. Before now the latest date for a Neandertal was 36,000 B.P., from St. Cesaire in France.

In northern Spain Aurignacian stone tools, generally associated with modern humans, appear between 40,000 and 38,000 B.P. The evidence from Zafarraya proves that the later Neandertals of southern Spain and Portugal were contemporary with the modern humans of the early Upper Palaeolithic in Western Europe. This means that Neandertal makers of Mousterian tools and Aurignacian populations, probably modern humans, coexisted in Western Europe for about 10,000 years. In Europe Neandertal and modern human populations mixed, but in southern Spain and Portugal Neandertals survived for millennia without strong biological or cultural interaction with the newcomers, probably because they were isolated from modern humans. The existence of a Neandertal population in southern Spain long after modern humans arrived in the north makes the possibility that modern humans reached Western Europe from Africa across the Straits of Gibraltar highly unlikely. Instead, the dates from Zafarraya suggest that modern humans arrived in Western Europe from the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

The Neandertal lineage developed in Europe after ca. 400,000 B.P., and then diverged more and more from the archaic Homo sapiens living in other parts of the Old World. When fully modern humans appeared in Africa and Southwestern Asia some 100,000 years ago, Neandertals were still evolving on their own. They are thought to have provided only a minor biological contribution, if any at all, to the modern populations of Europe.

Zafarraya was first excavated between 1980 and 1983. The new dates were obtained by an international project, begun in 1990, that is studying the cave's chronology, paleoenvironment, and paleoanthropology. The new findings will be published in the French journal Comptes rendus de l'Académie des sciences de Paris by Hublin, Spanish archaeologists Cecilio Barroso Ruiz and Paqui Medina Lara, and French dating specialists Michel Fontugne and Jean-Louis Reyss.

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© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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