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Neanderthals, our beetle-browed cousins from the far past, seem to have hung on longer than we thought. Newly discovered stone tools from the island of Gibraltar on the southern tip of Spain suggest that Neanderthals survived there up until 28,000 years ago, and that means they lived thousands of years longer than previously thought and would've had plenty of time to mingle with modern humans like us.
NPR's Christopher Joyce has the story.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: If you suspect someone you know is actually the last Neanderthal, you'd be wrong. The last Neanderthal apparently died 28,000 years ago in a place called Gorham's Cave. The evidence consists of cutting tools and spear points.
Clive Finlayson, an anthropologist who runs the Gibraltar Museum, says the design is unmistakably Neanderthal. Radiocarbon dating indicates the tools were made over a period of several thousand years, with the most recent firm date being 28,000 years ago.
Neanderthals were thought to have gone extinct several thousand years before that. So Finlayson suggests that Neanderthals had lots of time to mix it up with the new crowd in the European continent, modern humans.
Mr. CLIVE FINLAYSON (Gibraltar Museum): You have sites in the area with modern people at around 32,000, so that means there must have been a period of a few thousand years where both populations were in the same area, probably Neanderthals shrinking and pioneer, early modern populations probably low density, but one didn't cause the extinction of the other.
JOYCE: Writing in the journal Nature, Finlayson suggests a changing climate hastened the extinction of the Neanderthals. They were adapted to hunting large prey in forests. But a cooling climate was turning northern forests into plains, which required a new way of life.
Mr. FINLAYSON: They were really big, tough guys dealing with prey at close quarters. The modern humans seem to be more (unintelligible), they seem to be developing more portable technology, perhaps also projectile technology. That would suit an open steppe or tundra environment.
JOYCE: Finlayson says the new climate favored the moderns.
Mr. FINLAYSON: I could put to you an alternative thought experiment that had the climate become more stable and warmer, then you and I today would be Neanderthals discussing the extinction of moderns.
JOYCE: But we aren't, so what human anthropologists are discussing is why Neanderthals lost and we won. Some say humans were clearly smarter, given the more sophisticated tools we made. Some say human language gave us the edge. Others even suggest that Neanderthals bred with humans, although DNA research shows virtually no evidence of that.
So was the Rock of Gibraltar the Neanderthals tombstone? There is some dispute. Anthropologist Paul Mellars of Cambridge University in England notes that radiocarbon dating is tricky. He says the ages for the Gibraltar tools vary from 32,000 to 28,000 years ago, and he suspects the older dates are more reliable.
Mr. PAUL MELLARS (Cambridge University): I mean, in principle there's no reason why the Neanderthals shouldn't have survived much later down in the Iberian Peninsula, it's just that I'm not personally convinced that these particular dates prove that they survived beyond about 31,000 or 32,000 years.
JOYCE: Even if the new date for the demise of the Neanderthals does not hold up, the discovery suggests that they saw their end somewhere in southwestern Europe. Eric Delson, an anthropologist at Lehman College at the City University of New York, says scientists have found several Neanderthal sites in that region, all about the same age.
Mr. ERIC DELSON (Lehman College, City University of New York): Taken together, these sites seem to suggest that southern Iberia was a refuge area where Neanderthals went. Whether it's their last graveyard or one of several, we don't know yet.
JOYCE: If Gibraltar was, in fact, the point of no return for the Neanderthals, at least the climate was nice and the beach was within walking distance.
Christopher Joyce, NPR News.