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Athena Review  Vol.2, no.4:   Neanderthals Meet Modern Humans


Modern Human Origins and Neanderthal Extinctions in the Levant


by John J. Shea

Anthropology Department, State University of New York at Stony Brook


The origin of modern humans and the fate of the Neanderthals are two of the most hotly debated topics in paleoanthropology (Stringer 1996). Recent developments in the archaeology of the Middle Paleolithic Levant, part of the East Mediterranean including southern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and northern Egypt (fig.1), are dramatically changing our perception of Neanderthals. Once seen as dull-witted cavemen, new evidence suggests Neanderthals were intelligent, adaptable, and highly effective predators. Although many see Neanderthals as our possible ancestors, it is increasingly clear that they competed with early modern humans for tens of thousands of years in Europe and the Near East.

New research in Africa, Europe, and Asia suggests that the abrupt disappearance of the Neanderthals and the sudden appearance of early anatomically-modern humans throughout much of Western Eurasia after 47,000 BP is more than a coincidence. The last fifteen years in particular have seen flourishing scientific advances in areas such as improved radiometric dating techniques and the recent recovery of Neanderthal DNA. These are making it increasingly clear that the Levantine Neanderthals and early modern humans were probably different species, indirectly competing with each other in the same ecological niche. Further, the Levant appears to have shifted hands repeatedly between Neanderthal and early modern human occupations until around 47,000 BP, after which Neanderthal populations dwindled, culminating in their extinction by 28,000 BP. Concurrently, modern humans were expanding into western Eurasia, replacing Neanderthals along the way.

Background: Neanderthal Fossils and Archaeology. “Neanderthal” refers to a group of morphologically distinct human fossils found throughout Western Eurasia dating to ca. 130,000-30,000 BP. They appear to have evolved in Europe from Homo heidelbergensis populations, such as those from Sima de los Huesos (Atapuerca, Spain), Steinheim (Germany) and Petralona (Greece). The principal Neanderthal fossils of the Levant come from the cave sites of Tabun, Amud, Kebara, and Dederiyeh, as well as Shanidar Cave in northern Iraq (Trinkaus 1996). Neanderthals were ruggedly built, with thick chests and relatively short limbs, a body shape today found among arctic populations (Stringer and Gamble 1993). In comparison, early modern human fossils older than 47,000 BP are found mainly in Africa, but also at two cave sites in northern Israel, Skhul and Qafzeh (Bar-Yosef and Vandermeersch 1993). These fossils are also robust, but have thinner chests and relatively long limbs, like those of modern-day humans in the tropics (Holliday 2000).  

Fig.1: Map of the Levant, showing important sites mentioned in the text (J. Shea)

Paleoanthropological models of Neanderthal-early modern human evolutionary relationships vary substantively. At one extreme, proponents of “multiregional continuity” regard Neanderthals as a geographically distinct subspecies of Homo sapiens, one that was absorbed into expanding modern human populations by interbreeding (Frayer et al. 1993). At the other extreme are proponents of “replacement” who view Homo sapiens as having originated in only one region, expanding from that region by competitively displacing the Neanderthals without interbreeding (Stringer 1992). Some researchers hold intermediate positions, arguing for replacement in some regions and continuity in others (Smith 1994). The crucial question, though, of whether Neanderthals and early modern humans could have interbred and produced both viable and fertile children (the definition of a species) remains unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable. However, strands of DNA have been recovered from Neanderthal fossils which suggest a lack of direct ancestry between the two species (Höss 2000; Ovchinnikov et al. 2000, and this issue). Conversely, recent claims argue that fossils of an Upper Paleolithic child from Lagar Velho reflect a hybrid Neanderthal-modern human ancestor (Duarte et al. 1999; Zilhao this issue).

Changing Models of Levantine Middle Paleolithic Human Evolution: Until recently, the Levant was seen as furnishing the strongest evidence for a biocultural transition between the Neanderthals and early modern human populations. In the mid-1980s, geophysicists had developed several methods, thermoluminescence, electron-spin resonance, and uranium-series, for dating sites older than 40,000 BP that provided revolutionary results. While estimated ages for the Levantine Neanderthals were broadly comparable to those from Europe, between 65,000-47,000 BP, the new dating methods showed that the early modern humans from Skhul and Qafzeh date to 130,000-80,000 BP, older than the Neanderthals who were supposedly their ancestors (Valladas et al. 1998). Minimally, these new dates call for a reinterpretation of Neanderthal vs. early modern human biological and behavioral contrasts.

There are many similarities in the Neanderthals’ and early modern humans’ archaeological records. Both lived in similar Mediterranean woodland habitats and occupied karstic caves. Both hunted and gathered the same range of animal species, such as aurochs (wild cattle) fallow deer, wild boar, ibex, and mountain gazelle. Both made Middle Paleolithic stone tools in similar ways. Such similarities are to be expected between closely related hominids, but they do not necessarily imply a close social or cultural relationship. Instead, evidence for evolutionarily significant behavioral differences between Neanderthals and early modern humans is likely to be subtle, reflected in the different strategies these humans used to accomplish their settlement, subsistence, and social goals.

Fig.2: Neanderthal skull from Amud, Israel

Seasonality, Settlement and Mobility Strategies: Seasonality studies indicate that Neanderthals and early modern humans used different mobility strategies (Lieberman 1998). Cementum, the continuously growing tissue that secures teeth in the skulls of herbivores, can tell us the season of an animal’s death and hence, in archaeological contexts, the time of year that humans hunted it and occupied the site (for a more detailed explanation of how researchers use cementum, see Shea's article in Athena Review Vol.2, no.4; pp.24-25). The teeth of herbivores (mainly gazelle) associated with early modern remains at Skhul, Qafzeh, and Tabun Level C preserved evidence for single-seasons of occupation (typically only during winter). Teeth associated with Neanderthals at Tabun B and Kebara provided evidence for multiseasonal occupations. Early modern humans appear to have shifted their camp sites seasonally, perhaps moving as different resources became available in different parts of the landscape. Neanderthals pursued a different strategy, one in which optimal habitation sites were occupied continuously for prolonged periods (or frequently re-occupied) and provisioned by shifting emphasis among various local food sources. That these two strategies were pursued in the same Mediterranean woodland habitat suggests that they were not spurred on by environmental differences, but instead by behavioral variations between Neanderthals and early modern humans.

Fig.3: Anatomically Modern Human skull from Skhul at Mt. Carmel, Israel

Lithic Artifacts and Hunting Strategies: Microscopic wear patterns on Levantine Middle Paleolithic triangular flakes, especially “Levallois points,” show they were used as armatures for thrusting spears (Shea 1988, 1997). At Umm el Tlel, Syria, a fragment of one such point was recently found embedded in a neck vertebra of a wild ass (Boeda et al. 1999). Thrusting spears are heavy weapons, and their brittle stone points would have to be replaced often. It seems reasonable to expect that groups specializing in partiucular larger game hunting, i.e., Neanderthals, used these and would have assembled larger numbers of suitable replacement points at their habitation sites than those (Homo sapiens) who used lighter weapons, such as sharpened wooden spears and clubs, against a wider range of prey species (Bleed 1986). And the archaeological record of the Middle Paleolithic Levant seems to show this.

Burial and Mortuary Ritual: Contrasts between Neanderthal and early modern human burials from the Levant provide a third line of evidence for behavioral differences. Burial of the dead is often associated with ritual, but it may have been practiced in the past for the more practical purpose of minimizing carnivore visits to habitation sites. If burial was for the latter reason alone, then there is no reason to expect objects immediately near the skeleton to differ significantly from those in the surrounding sediments.  This seems to be true of all of the claimed Neanderthal burials from the Levant. Even the famous “flower burial” from Shanidar, long a mainstay of claims for Neanderthal mortuary ritual, may have been caused by rodents (Meriones persica) storing flowers in their burrows (Sommer 1999). Most of the early modern human skeletons from Skhul and Qafzeh are also simple burials, but two notable exceptions, where skeletons were found with unusual animal bones, may indicate that early modern humans practiced different social strategies from those of Neanderthals.

Evolutionary Changes in Modern Human Behavior: Current fossil evidence shows that only early modern humans were present in the Levant between 130,000-80,000 BP, and re-appear again after the Middle-Upper Paleolithic Transition, around 47,000-40,000 BP. Only Neanderthal fossils appear in the intervening period, 75,000-47,000 BP. Bar-Yosef (1988) has suggested that the rapid onset of glacial conditions around 75,000 BP caused Neanderthal populations to migrate south from montane western Asia into the Levant corridor.Far from displaying a “transitional” population, the early modern human fossils from the Levant seen to possess Neanderthal affinities (Skhul and Qafzeh) date to before the first occurrence of Neanderthal fossils in this region while human fossils from adjacent parts of Northeast Africa, such as Tamrasa Hill I, that are contemporaneous with Levantine Neanderthals preserve no trace of Neanderthal morphology (Vermeersch et al. 1998). Then, around 45,000-35,000 BP, Neanderthal fossils cease to occur in the Levant at exactly the point when Upper Paleolithic industries first appear in Israeli and Lebanese cave sites (Bar-Yosef 1996). By 30,000 BP, Neanderthals continued to practice Middle Paleolithic adaptations in a few isolated refuges, such as southern Spain and western Asia. Shortly thereafter, Neanderthals became extinct, replaced by Upper Paleolithic modern humans.

By contrasting the archaeological records of the Skhul/Qazfeh humans with those of early Upper Paleolithic humans, it may be possible to identify those behaviors that may have enabled the Upper Paleolithic humans to displace the Neanderthals. Two prominent differences are the use of exosomatic symbols and the use of projectile weapons.

Symbolic Culture: “Exosomatic symbols” allow modern humans to creatively construct social and cultural identities that transcend actual biological kinship (Wobst 1977). The best-documented early examples of symbolic artifacts are bone, ivory and stone beads from “Aurignacian” early Upper Paleolithic sites in Europe (White 1993), but perforated shells have also been recovered from early Upper Paleolithic sites in the Levant (Gilead 1995). Although Middle Paleolithic Neanderthals and early modern humans are associated with symbolic items such as red ochre pigment, tooth pendants, exotic shells, and carved bones and stones, the use of these symbols appears to have been on a relatively restricted geographic scale. Upper Paleolithic symbolic artifacts, in contrast, occur at numerous sites within much larger regions (Mellars 1995). This clearly implies a much larger potential audience than that for Middle Paleolithic symbolic messages.

Subsistence Tools: The use of high-speed, low-mass projectile weapons, such as javelins, spearthrower darts, and arrows, is an important component of the Upper Paleolithic economic “revolution” (Knecht 1994) and appear in the early Upper Paleolithic of the Levant in the form of aerodynamic stone and bone points from Ksar Akil, Lebanon (Bergman 1981; Newcomer 1987).Weapons of this kind allow their users to kill targets from a safe distance, minimizing the risk of attacking large, dangerous mammals. Because these weapons depend more on throwing speed and aim than sheer physical force, juveniles and females can use them as effectively as adult males, allowing for a larger proportion of their population to participate in the large animal food quest. If early Upper Paleolithic modern humans migrating out of the African tropics were more experienced at using projectile weapons than Neanderthals or the Skhul/Qafzeh humans, then they would have had a crucial adaptive advantage.

Conclusion: The most interesting thing about the Levantine record is that until 47,000 BP, there is no objective basis for predicting whether Neanderthals or early modern humans would ultimately be the most successful, and certainly no way to predict that modern humans would permanently replace the Neanderthals. Because we know the Neanderthal fossil record so well, relative to other hominid fossils, and because we know they became extinct, there is a tendency to see Neanderthals as inevitable evolutionary “losers.” However, studies of their fossils and their archaeological record point to no obvious defects in their adaptations. Neanderthals and their Homo heidelbergensis ancestors evolved and thrived between 300,000-30,000 years ago, nearly a quarter of a million years, in some of the harshest and least hospitable habitats ever occupied by hominids. The picture of the Neanderthals emerging from recent research is one of formidable competitors, humans every bit as worthy of our interest and admiration as our own direct ancestors.


Abridged from the full-length article by John J. Shea in Athena Review, Vol.2, no.4 (pp.21-32).


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