Neandertal terminal biogeography

How late did Neandertals persist in the Late Pleistocene? Two papers out this week discuss the dates of the latest Neandertals in western Asia.

Pinhasi and colleagues (2011) stress the importance of directly dating Late Pleistocene human-ish fossils. There are numerous techniques used to estimate the ages of the fun stuff we find underground. For fairly old fossils like australopithecines, perhaps the most reliable radiometric method is Argon-Argon, though this requires the fossils to be relatable to volcanic sediments whose argon levels can be measured. The point is that dates of burial are often not estimated from the fossil materials themselves, but rather the sediments and such surrounding the fossil of interest. But younger fossils (than say 50,000) preserve some of the bone’s original carbon -allowing age estimates of the fossils themselves by radiocarbon dating.

Pinhasi and colleagues note that while seven separate Neandertal specimens from across Europe and western Asia have been directly dated to be younger than 36 thousand years, these dates may be underestimates. In other words, Neandertals may not have lived after 40 thousand years. To this end, these researchers directly re-dated the infant Neandertal from Mezmaiskaya Cave in Russia, and estimate the poor lad to have died around 42-44 thousand years ago. The authors predict that future direct redating of other Neandertals will show Neandertals to have disappeared by 40 thousand years ago, and that they would have overlapped in time with more modern-looking humans either minimally or not at all. If only there were more information on the latest dates for Middle Paleolithic people!

Lucky me, in tomorrow’s Science, Ludovic Slimak and colleagues report on Mousterian tools dating to 32-34 thousand years ago, from the site of Byzovaya Cave “in the western foothills of the Polar Urals” (Slimak et al. 2011: 841). “POLAR!” The site is way further north than any site with Neandertal bones like Mezmaiskaya and Okladnikov, which is pretty impressive. But, there are no human remains associated with the tools, so we don’t know who made them. To what extent do these finds address Pinhasi’s and others’ contention of no Neandertals after 40 thousand years ago?

Slimak and colleagues carbon-dated animal bones that were butchered with the Mousterian tools, which were allegedly made only by Neandertals. There is a major problem with the wide-held assumption that Mousterian (Middle Paleolithic) tools were made only by Neandertals, whereas Upper Paleolithic industries beginning with the Aurignacian were made only by humans. This goes along with people’s wont to make a connection between stone tool ‘culture’ and biologically determined, phylogenetically significant behavioral capacities. But of course, we know biology doesn’t determine behavior, and so there’s no reason to assume [Mousterian:Neandertal::Aurignacian:’Modern’ Human]. Where Mousterian remains have been associated with diagnostic skeletal remains, they are Neandertal. But the Aurignacian, so far as I know, is not associated with diagnostic fossils – we can’t say for certain who made it. Plus we know Neandertals were doing something kooky, yet logical in some sort of cognitively complex way, with bird feathers in Italy 44 thousand years ago (Peresani et al. 2011). So the Byzovaya stone tools may demonstrate a late, northern holdout of Neandertals, but then they could simply mean that the new technology either hadn’t arrived or hadn’t been successful in the far reaches of sub-Artic Pleistocene humanity.

If the latter is the case and Pinhasi & team’s hypothesis that Neandertals didn’t coexist in time and space (or did only minimally) holds, then the old assumption of Mousterian = Neandertal becomes dubious for other sites with Mousterian tools but no diagnostic fossils. This would also beg the question of the role of modern humans in the Neandertal demise – did the Neandertals disappear and open a niche for other groups of people (‘moderns’)?

So how were Neandertal populations distributed through space and time in their latest days? I dunno! But for the moment I suppose I’d be surprised if no fossils with Neandertal morphology turn out to be younger than 40 thousand years as suggested by Pinhasi and co. But then I could be wrong.
Hoffmann, A., Hublin, J., Hüls, M., & Terberger, T. (2011). The Homo aurignaciensis hauseri from Combe-Capelle – A Mesolithic burial Journal of Human Evolution DOI:10.1016/j.jhevol.2011.03.001

Peresani, M., Fiore, I., Gala, M., Romandini, M., & Tagliacozzo, A. (2011). Late Neandertals and the intentional removal of feathers as evidenced from bird bone taphonomy at Fumane Cave 44 ky B.P., Italy Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108 (10), 3888-3893 DOI:10.1073/pnas.1016212108

Pinhasi R, Higham TF, Golovanova LV, & Doronichev VB (2011). Revised age of late Neanderthal occupation and the end of the Middle Paleolithic in the northern Caucasus.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID:21555570

Slimak, L., Svendsen, J., Mangerud, J., Plisson, H., Heggen, H., Brugere, A., & Pavlov, P. (2011). Late Mousterian Persistence near the Arctic Circle Science, 332 (6031), 841-845 DOI:10.1126/science.1203866


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