Atlantis Arisen

Science & Technology => Human Genetics => Topic started by: Lisa Wolfe on January 12, 2011, 01:25:15 pm

Title: Life on the edge: was a Gibraltar cave last outpost of the lost neanderthal?
Post by: Lisa Wolfe on January 12, 2011, 01:25:15 pm
Life on the edge: was a Gibraltar cave last outpost of the lost neanderthal?
Ian Sample, science correspondent
Thursday September 14, 2006
The Guardian

The final resting place of the last neanderthals may have been unearthed by fossil-hunters excavating deep inside a cave in Gibraltar.
Primitive stone tools and remnants from wood fires recovered from the vast Gorham's cave on the easternmost face of the Rock suggest neanderthals found refuge there, and clung to life for thousands of years after they had died out elsewhere.

Carbon dating of charcoal fragments excavated alongside spear points and basic cutting tools indicates the cave was home to a group of around 15 neanderthals at least 28,000 years ago, and possibly as recently as 24,000 years ago. Previously uncovered remains lead scientists to believe the neanderthals died out in Europe and elsewhere some 35,000 years ago.

The discovery marks more clearly than ever before the time of death of our closest relative, and completes one of the most dramatic chapters in human evolution.

Today, Gorham's cave is perched on a cliff face lapped by the Mediterranean, but the view from the east-facing entrance was once of rolling sand dunes pocked with vegetation. A freshwater stream running down from the north led to the sea three miles away.

"For the neanderthals, this was a great place to be. The view would have been breathtaking, and they would have literally been able to see where their next meal was coming from," said Chris Stringer, a scientist on the project at the Natural History Museum in London. "The evidence supports the idea that this was one of their last survival spots, one of their final outposts."

The sea level was around 100m lower in neanderthal times as vast quantities of water were locked up in glaciers that encroached from the poles and smothered Scotland in sheets of ice two miles thick.

Clive Finlayson at the Gibraltar Museum said the neanderthals probably survived in the region because of the stabilising influence of the Atlantic on the local climate.

Elsewhere, glaciation caused violent lurches in climate that turned fertile pastures into barren wastelands.

But at Gorham's cave, and along the nearby coast, the climate would have been calmer, maintaining what Prof Finlayson calls a "Mediterranean Serengeti", with red deer, leopards and hyenas roaming between watering holes.

The discovery throws into doubt the theory that the arrival of modern humans was solely responsible for the demise of the neanderthals, by outcompeting them for food or even engaging in the earliest acts of genocide. More likely, the neanderthals were already struggling to adapt to rapid changes in crucial food resources such as vegetation and wild animals.

Modern humans and neanderthals split from a common ancestor, Homo heidelbergensis, around 500,000 years ago when the power of fire was first harnessed.

From a foothold north of the Mediterranean, Homo heidelbergensis steadily evolved into the neanderthals, while in Africa, the same species embarked on a different evolutionary path, one that ultimately gave rise to modern-day Homo sapiens. Remains of neanderthals dating back as far as 400,000 years suggest a reasonably sophisticated species which crafted handtools and weapons and buried its dead.

The stone tools unearthed from Gorham's cave were discovered 2.5 metres beneath the soil towards the back of the 40m long cave where the neanderthals had created a hearth. The collection includes basic knife edges used for butchering carcasses and scraping tools for working skins and hides, according to the journal Nature today.

Many of the tools were preserved impeccably. "I saw one flake and went to touch it, knowing it was a tool left by a neanderthal, and it drew blood," said Prof Finlayson. "It can be very powerful being in the cave. You can get that feeling that a neanderthal was sitting in exactly the same spot, that the only thing separating us is time. It's like a connection over tens of thousands of years and it makes you want to know more. We're humans studying humans."

Gorham's cave is likely to yield yet more insights into the life and death of the neanderthal. The archaeologists have uncovered a low, narrow passageway at the rear of the cave that they discovered, by crawling along, stretches a further 30m back into the rock. They believe it may lead to another chamber, and speculate it may even be a burial site.

Exploration of the region has moved into the sea beneath the cave, to examine the now submerged land that once stretched out in front of the cave. Divers working with the team have recently identified nine further caves 20m beneath the sea surface. "We are going to attempt underwater excavations. We will go into it knowing the chances of finding anything are slim, but what if we were to find tools? That would be amazing," said Prof Finlayson.

The neanderthals

The neanderthals were short and powerfully-built, with huge noses and receding foreheads, but there is no evidence that they had less brainpower than modern humans. Their brains were at least as big as ours, although there were differences: the frontal lobes were smaller, suggesting they may not have been as adept at planning, while the rear of the brain was larger, suggesting keener sight than modern humans.

Many scientists believe their stocky stature was chiefly an adaptation to the cold, a useful trait considering they lived through the last Ice Age. Being squat reduces a creature's surface area, and so less heat is lost from the body.

Climate may have played only a part though. Some scientists believe the Neanderthal's squat form favoured their lifestyle, of limited roaming with regular and physical wrestles with the animals that would become their prey.

The spear points and cutting edges unearthed in Gorham's cave in Gibraltar are known as Mousterian tools, named after the Le Moustier site in Dordogne, where the best examples of neanderthal archeaology were first uncovered.

Gibraltar has proved a treasure trove for modern neanderthal hunters. The first neanderthal bones discovered were those of a woman, found in a quarry in Gibraltar in 1848. And in 1997, archaeologists working in a cave on the Rock discovered the remains of what they believe was a neanderthal meal of mussels, pistachio and tortoise cooked up more than 30,000 years ago.

More recent findings have suggested neanderthals brought shellfish and other food to their caves before crafting simple tools to break them apart and prepare them.,,1871842,00.html?gusrc=rss&feed=1