May 15, 2011

The Arctic Neanderthals

Byzovaya tools
There's been a bit of noise with the confirmation of the vanishing of Neanderthals from the Caucasus c. 40,000 years ago (but this was something we already knew, right?) but specially with the demonstration that the artifacts found in one of the most northernly sites of the time (Byzovaya, in today's Komi Republic) are typical Mousterian as others from Central and Eastern Europe of the time and hence most probably of Neanderthal making.

It is interesting to notice that this site is not really new, and that there is another even more northernly site, Mamontovaya Kurya, further north, above the Arctic Circle. However when Svensen and Pavlov reviewed the site (see below) they argued for modern H. sapiens based only in the prejudice that no other Neanderthal sites were known so far North.

"Neanderthal finds" refers to skeletal ones only and they have forgotten Palestine anyhow

It is important to emphasize that no skeletal remains have been found and that the adscription of these Mousterian findings to the species H. neanderthalensis is founded on the fact that only Neanderthals are known to have used that kind of Mousterian technology in that area. One could make a knee-jerk not Neanderthals case but it seems quite futile after considering the general context.

This finding seems to reinforce the idea of a penetration of our ancestors of the H. sapiens species in all Western Eurasia c. 40,000 years ago (50-30 Ka. roughly) fragmenting the pre-existent Neanderthal populations into a handful of isolated pockets (Komi Republic, Southern Iberia, Croatia, Southern Italy...), which would be made up of very few people each, eventually succumbing anyhow either to further expansions of our ancestors, ecological pressures or mere lack of genetic diversity caused by fragmentation itself.

On the other hand it emphasizes the striking intelligence and adaptability of Neanderthals, able to colonize such an extreme habitat.


(Thanks to Tim, by the way).


  1. With the authors themselves waffling back and forth, I am still not decided on this one. What do we know of the timing and regions of first clearly AMHs-associated tool sets? Clearly, if you go back far enough, and depending on place, you would expect to see rather mundane stone tools associated with AMHs - especially if there were two ooAs.

    And maybe, not all AMHs were cognitively so. The magic time ~45kya when everything started to change seems to indicate that.

  2. What they say is that it is Mousterian and Mousterian of the variant used in Eastern and Central Europe, which is confirmed to have been created by Neanderthals (several sites). This is as conclusive as it can get without skulls.

    H. sapiens in Africa and elsewhere used a range to toolkits but they have only been associated with Mousterian in the Palestine-Egypt area c. 100 Ka. ago. The basic industry of pre-OoA and surely post-OoA H. sapiens was the so-called Middle Stone Age (MSA), which can be described in short as a proto-Solutrean.

    Blade-based technologies (mode 4) were first developed in South Asia, probably by H. sapiens already. East Asia was surely colonized with flake-based techs (mode 3?) instead (some argue that because of the dominant types of available rock).

    "The magic time ~45kya when everything started to change"...

    Don't let yourself be deceived by the myth of "modern human behavior" and much less by obsolete chronologies. Art is apparent much earlier, since at least 120 Ka. (Skuhl/Qahfez - then Aterian and then Broken Hill), and probably existed from even much much earlier in non-persistent forms (dance, music, body art, narration). Similarly mode 4 (blades that would eventually define the "Upper Paleolithic" in West Eurasia) is much older than 45 Ka.: it was developed in South Asia c. 110 Ka. and becomes common since c. 80 Ka. (with even instances of alleged Neanderthal usage in West Asia before H. sapiens arrived).


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