24 June 2008

Neanderthals' Last Hurrah Surprisingly Sophisticated

by Kate Melville

The archaeological excavation at the Beedings site in southern England is providing scientists with a poignant glimpse into the last days of a group of Neanderthals on the verge of extinction. Surprisingly, however, the dig indicates a thriving, developing population, rather than a community in its death throes.

"The tools we've found at the site are technologically advanced and potentially older than tools in Britain belonging to our own species, Homo sapiens," said University College London's Dr Matthew Pope. "It's exciting to think that there's a real possibility these were left by some of the last Neanderthal hunting groups to occupy northern Europe. The impression they give is of a population in complete command of both landscape and natural raw materials with a flourishing technology - not a people on the edge of extinction."

Pope is leading a team in the first modern, scientific investigation of the site since its original discovery in 1900 when workmen digging the foundations of a large house (known as the Beedings house) uncovered more than 2,000 perfectly preserved stone tools. It was initially believed that the tools were fakes and most of them were thrown away or destroyed.

It was only in the 1980s that the tools were recognized as genuinely ancient. Research by the British Museum's Roger Jacobi showed conclusively that the Beedings artifacts had strong affinities with other tools from northern Europe dating back between 35,000 and 42,000 years ago. Jacobi interpreted the site as a hunting camp where game herds could be clearly observed and weapons repaired in anticipation of the next kill. The collection of tools from Beedings is more diverse than any other found in the region and offers insights into the technologically advanced cultures which occupied Northern Europe before the appearance of our own species.

"Dr Jacobi's work showed the clear importance of the site," says Dr Pope. "The exceptional collection of tools appears to represent the sophisticated hunting kit of Neanderthal populations which were only a few millennia from complete disappearance in the region. Unlike earlier, more typical Neanderthal tools these were made with long, straight blades - blades which were then turned into a variety of bone and hide processing implements, as well as lethal spear points."

Interestingly, Pope and his team have also discovered older, more typical Neanderthal tools, deeper in the dig. He believes that Neanderthal hunters were drawn to the hill over a very long period of time, likely for the excellent viewing provided by the ridge over the plains below.

Homo Sapiens Brow-Beaten By Neanderthals
Language-Gene Evolution Shared By Humans And Neanderthals
Global Warming Behind Early Primate Diaspora?

Source: University College London