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An Arctic refuge for Neanderthals?

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A mysterious Stone Age archaeological site in northern Russian may force scientists to reconsider the fate of the last Neanderthals – or, alternatively, the technological signature of the first modern humans to reach Europe.

Perched along a riverbank west of the Ural Mountains and below the Arctic circle, the 550-square-meter Byzovaya site contains hundreds of butchered animal bones and stone tools – but not the remains of the humans who left these Stone Age clues.

In a paper published today in Science, Ludovic Slimak, at the University of Toulouse, France, and his team date the remains to as young as 32,000 years ago. They also contend that the stone tools resemble a cultural tradition linked to Neanderthals called the Mousterian. Moreover, Slimak’s team did not unearth any of the stone blade technologies typical of the first modern humans to reach Europe, around 40,000 years ago.

If Neanderthals dwelled at Byzovaya as recently as 32,000 years ago, it could mean that Neanderthals in this region overlapped with modern humans, en route from Africa, for thousands of years.

Yet earlier this week in PNAS, another team of researchers re-dated Neanderthal remains at a cave hundreds of kilometres south of Byzovaya to around 40,000 years ago, suggesting that humans and Neanderthals coexisted there for a very short while, if at all.


It could be that the last Neanderthals in the region eked out a living in Arctic refuges like Byzovaya, long after their brethren further south disappeared, suggested Thomas Higham, a carbon dating expert at the University of Oxford, UK who coauthored the PNAS paper, when I interviewed him last week for a story on his paper.

“Eurasia is a big place and there doesn’t seem to be any reason why population of Neanderthals may not survive somewhere from the dispersal of modern people,” he said.

Despite its extreme latitude, Byzovaya, 32,000 years ago, was ice-free and milder than usual (though still much more frigid than it is today), Slimak’s team notes.

But with only tools to go by, they cannot be sure that Neanderthals lived there. “There are no human fossils at that site, and it may be that it comes down to the assumption that Mousterian tools equal Neanderthal occupation,” Higham said. “If they don’t the whole thing gets blown out of the water.”

If, instead, modern humans created the tools at Byzovaya, it may suggest that some populations of humans held onto older tool-making traditions, Slimak’s team writes.

Image of stone artefacts from Byzovaya by Hugues Plisson, courtesy of Science/AAAS

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