The Ural Mountains site “may be one of the last [refuges] of the Neanderthals, and that would be very exciting,” said study leader Ludovic Slimak, an archaeologist at France’s UniversitÃ© de Toulouse le Mirail.
Neanderthals dominated Europe for some 200,000 years until modern humans began moving into the region about 45,000 years ago. The two human species likely shared space for a while, but it’s a mystery what happened during that period, how long it lasted, and why Homo sapiens prevailed in the end.
“Not surprisingly, it was in the peripheral areas”â€”Iberia and perhaps northwestern Europeâ€””that Neanderthals remained the longest as discrete populations,” said Neanderthal expert Erik Trinkaus, of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, who wasn’t part of the new study.
But now hundreds of stone tools found at Byzovayaâ€”a Russian site at the same chilly latitude as Icelandâ€”could redraw the map of Neanderthals in Europe.
The dating of butchered mammoth bones and sand grains that surrounded the tools suggests the settlement was last occupied about 33,000 years ago. Both types of artifacts were radiocarbon dated and luminescence datedâ€”a technique that determines when material was last exposed to sunlight.
By 33,000 years ago, all or most Neanderthals are believed to have died out. But the Byzovaya tools match those made and used by many Neanderthals, a signature tool kit of scrapers and flakes created by banging rocks togetherâ€”what’s called Mousterian technology.
Neanderthal Stone-Tool Evidence Not Rock Solid
Though the tools are distinctly Neanderthal, a definitive answer on who lived at Byzovaya 33,000 years ago remains elusive. No Neanderthal or other human remains have been found at Byzovaya, even though the site has been excavated since the 1960s.
But study leader Slimak stresses that, in Europe, these kinds of tools have been found at only Neanderthal sites and never this late in the record.
“What do we find during this period elsewhere in Europe?” Modern-human societiesâ€”and no Mousterian tools, he answered.
As a potential Neanderthal site, Slimak added, the settlement is notable not only for its recentness but also for its locationâ€”some 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) north of the generally accepted Neanderthal range.
Byzovaya Neanderthals, the new study implies, had figured out how to endure brutally cold climes.
“People of this culture, with these tools, lived in the Arctic landscape during a period when all of Europe was under very, very cold conditions,” he said.
Neanderthal Occupation Isn’t Definitive
Tools alone can’t be taken as definitive evidence that their users were Neanderthal rather than Homo sapiens, Washington University’s Trinkaus cautioned.
“As noted by the authors, one has to be very careful of inferring human biological form from tool technology, especially around the [time of the] transition to modern humans,” Trinkaus said.
For example, early modern humans are known to have used Neanderthal-style tools in southwest Asia, he said, so their presence isn’t definitive proof of a Neanderthal occupation.
Even if it turns out that modern humans created the Byzovaya tools, the find would still be exciting, study leader Slimak saidâ€”it would be the first evidence that Homo sapiens in Europe carried on a Neanderthal technology after the Neanderthals themselves were gone.
No matter who made the tools, or when, one thing remains clearâ€”there’s little clarity in the human lineage, and there won’t be anytime soon.
For one thing, Slimak said, when it comes to human ancestral species, “large parts of Eurasia remain largely unknown, or known only by the efforts of some pioneering researchers.
“Let’s not be surprised to be scientifically surprised in the very near future.”