Neanderthals survived for thousands of years longer than scientists thought, with small bands finding refuge in a massive cave near the southern tip of Spain, new research suggests.
The work contends that Neanderthals were using a cave in Gibraltar at least 2,000 years later than their presence had been firmly documented anywhere before, researchers said.
"Maybe these are the last ones," said Clive Finlayson of the Gibraltar Museum, who reported the findings Wednesday with colleagues on the website of the journal Nature.
The paper says charcoal samples from fires that Neanderthals set in the cave are about 28,000 years old and maybe just 24,000 years old.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 24, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Later Neanderthal: The headline on an article Sept. 16 in Section A about traces of a later Neanderthal being discovered referred to Gibraltar as part of Spain. It is a British possession.
Neanderthals were stocky, muscular hunters in Europe and western Asia who appeared more than 200,000 years ago. They died out after anatomically modern humans arrived in Europe 35,000 to 40,000 years ago.
Were the Neanderthals doomed because they couldn't compete with the encroaching modern humans for resources, or because they caught new germs from the moderns, or because of climate change? Did the two groups have much contact, and what kind?
They didn't appear to encounter each other in Gibraltar at Gorham's Cave. More than 5,000 years separate the last traces of the Neanderthals from the earliest evidence of modern humans, Finlayson said.
Eric Delson of Lehman College in the Bronx and the American Museum of Natural History, who did not participate in the research, said that the paper's 28,000-year-old date seems secure but that its case for Neanderthal presence after that is shaky.
There have been prior claims of "the last Neanderthal" that were eventually shot down, he said.
Paul Mellars, a professor of prehistory and human evolution at Cambridge University, said he believes the range of radiocarbon dating evidence in the paper suggests ages more like 31,000 or 32,000 years for the charcoal. Contamination by younger material might have skewed some radiocarbon results toward more recent dates, he observed.
Finlayson said he's comfortable with the 24,000-year figure and called the 28,000-year estimate conservative. There's no evidence of contamination with younger material, and chemical analysis argues against it, he said.