Remains found near the Arctic Circle characteristic of Mousterian culture(1) have recently been dated at over 28,500 years old, which is more than 8,000 years after Neanderthals are thought to have disappeared. This unexpected discovery by an international multi-disciplinary team, including researchers from CNRS(2), challenges previous theories. Could Neanderthals have lived longer than thought? Or had Homo sapiens already migrated to Europe at that stage? The results are published in Science of 13 May 2011.
The distinguishing feature of Mousterian culture, which developed during the Middle Palaeolithic (-300,000 to -33,000 years), is the use of a very wide range of flint tools, mainly by Neanderthal Man in Eurasia, but also by Homo sapiens in the Near East.
This culture is considered to be archaic, and not sufficiently advanced to allow Neanderthals to settle in the most extreme northern climates. It is thought to have brought about their demise some 33,000 to 36,000 years ago. They seem to have made way for modern humans, who appear to have occupied the whole of Eurasia thanks to their mastery of more advanced technologies.
A multi-disciplinary team of French CNRS researchers, working with Norwegian and Russian scientists, studied the Byzovaya site in the Polar Urals in northern Russia. Using carbon 14 dating and an optical simulation technique, the team was able to put an accurate date on sediments and on mammoth and reindeer bones abandoned on the site. The bones bore traces of butchering by Mousterian hunters.
The results intrigue scientists in more ways than one. They show that Mousterian culture may have lasted longer than scientists had originally thought. What’s more, no Mousterian presence had ever been identified so close to the Arctic Circle. All other traces are at least 1000 km further south. Lastly, the Byzovaya site, in Eurasia, seems only to have been occupied once, approximately 28,500 years ago, which is over 8,000 years after Neanderthals were thought to have disappeared.
So this discovery raises many questions, not least about how Mousterian society was organised. Did Neanderthal Man live longer than thought? Or could these last bearers of Mousterian culture in fact have been Homo sapiens? If so, the theories explaining that Neanderthals died out because their culture was archaic would be put into question. The studies open up new perspectives on this turning point in human history.
(1) One of the distinctive features of Mousterian culture is the use of particular tools during the Middle Palaeolethic (-300,000 to -33,000 years), both by Neanderthals in Europe and by Homo sapiens in the Near East
(2) Laboratoire Travaux et recherches archéologiques sur les cultures, les espaces et les sociétés (CNRS, Université Toulouse-Le Mirail, ministère de la Culture et de la communication, INRAP, EHESS) ; Laboratoire de la préhistoire à l’actuel : culture, environnement et anthropologie (CNRS, Université Bordeaux 1, ministère de la Culture et de la communication, INRAP) ; Laboratoire archéologies et sciences de l’antiquité (CNRS, Universités Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne et Paris Ouest Nanterre-La Défense, ministère de la Culture et de la communication)