Neanderthals moved further south, used more advanced tech than previously believed

Last modified February 15, 2021. Published February 15, 2021.
Neanderthals were more advanced than previously thought. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Neanderthals were more advanced than previously thought. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Neanderthals lived in more southerly climates and used technology closer to that of modern-day humans than archaeologists previously believed, according to a new paper by researchers who examined fossils and tools from what is now the Palestinian West Bank, raising questions about certain assumptions made by archaeologists and anthropologists.

Studying the history of Neanderthals, a species that lived alongside early humans and at times likely interbred with them, is crucial to understanding the development of humanity, researchers say. 

By analyzing stone tools and the tooth of an approximately 9-year-old Neanderthal child that had long been held in the private collection of a racist Scottish archeologist, the researchers determined that Neanderthals moved south into the Levant about 50,000 to 70,000 years ago, encountering and adapting to significantly different landscapes than the European environments where they were previously known to have lived. 

“The site is the southernmost known Neanderthal population in the world right now,” said lead author James Blinkhorn, an archeologist with the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany and Royal Holloway University in the U.K., in an interview with The Academic Times. “We think of Neanderthals as being typically a northern Eurasian population.”

“This southward shift means they’re starting to engage with some very different environments,” added Blinkhorn, whose findings were publishedin Scientific Reports on Monday. “The Levant, certainly by the coast, it’s hilly and wooded. But also you’re finding populations in perhaps more desert areas in what’s now Syria, what’s Jordan.”

This change in environment may have influenced the Neanderthals’ tool-making process, according to the researchers, who found items that were made using a technique for creating pointed flint tools called Nubian Levallois technology. 

Prior to this study, archaeologists generally believed that Nubian Levallois technology was used exclusively by Homo sapiens, according to the researchers. This meant that tools made using Nubian Levallois technology, which have been found as far away as now South Africa, were seen as evidence of Homo sapiens habitation. Finding out that Neanderthals used the technology as well draws this assumption into question. 

“People have been drawing very close links between Homo sapiens and Nubian Levallois technology,” said Blinkhorn, “This really is a moment to question, actually, is this demonstrated? Should we be more cautious?”

Blinkhorn wrote the paper alongside Clément Zanolli of the University of Bordeaux; Tim Compton, Lucile Crété and Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London; Huw S. Groucutt of the Max Planck Institute; Eleanor M. L. Scerri of the Max Planck Institute and University of Malta; Michael D. Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute, Smithsonian Institution and the University of Queensland; and Simon Blockley of Royal Holloway University. 

In order to find that Neanderthals had moved as far south as modern-day Palestine, the researchers analyzed the tooth of a Neanderthal child that was originally recovered in the Shukbah Cave by U.K. archaeologist Dorothy Garrod in 1928, when the region was part of the British Empire. 

The tooth wound up in the private collection of Sir Arthur Keith, a Scottish archaeologist and anthropologist who used scientific ideas to advance the idea of white supremacy and argue for segregation. Keith died in 1955, and parts of his collection — including the tooth — were eventually donated to the Natural History Museum in London. A group of researchers, including Compton and Stringer, began examining Keith’s collection in a paper published in 2014 by the Quaternary Journal. 

“Rediscovering this tooth helped prompt some of that work,” said Blinkhorn in reference to the study. 

Neanderthals were initially believed to mostly have inhabited Europe, but other archaeological work in recent years has shown that they also traveled as far east as Siberia. 

The Shukbah Cave researchers believe their findings could show that Neanderthals may even have entered the continent of Africa. 

“Up to now we have no direct evidence of a Neanderthal presence in Africa,” said Stringer. “But the southerly location of Shukbah, only about 400 km from Cairo, should remind us that they may have even dispersed into Africa at times.”

Blinkhorn said the discoveries are also very useful because they provide a rare link between technological and cultural development and Neanderthal biology. 

“It can be difficult to make direct, robust links between biology and culture,” said Blinkhorn. “We don't typically find burials from this period with a stone tool in someone’s hand.”

The paper, titled “Nubian Levallois technology associated with southernmost Neanderthals,” was published in Scientific ReportsThe authors are James Blinkhorn of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and Royal Holloway University; Clément Zanolli of the University of Bordeaux; Tim Compton, Lucile Crété and Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London;  Huw S. Groucutt of the Max Planck Institute; Eleanor M. L. Scerri of the Max Planck Institute and University of Malta; Michael D. Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute, Smithsonian Institution, and the University of Queensland; and Simon Blockley of Royal Holloway University. Blinkhorn is lead author. 

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