Siberian cave finds reveal Neanderthals made epic trek from Europe

Stone tools found in a cave in Siberia reveal the epic journey nomadic Neanderthals made from eastern Europe around 59,000 years ago

  • Chagyrskaya Cave has yielded 74 Neanderthals fossils and some 90,000 tools
  • Experts dated and analysed more than 3,000 of the stone tools from the cave
  • They found they were more similar to those used in eastern Europe than nearby
  • The team believe that there must have been two separate migrations to Siberia

Stone tools found in a cave in Siberia reveal that nomadic Neanderthals made an epic trek of more than 1,800 miles from Europe around 59,000 years ago.

Analysis of the tools found that they were formed in the same manner as those used by Neanderthals in eastern Europe, rather than those found elsewhere in Siberia.

Given this, the researchers have concluded that there were two separate long-distance migrations of Neanderthals into Siberia, about 40,000 years apart.

The findings reinforce the developing view of Neanderthals as a sophisticated people who were skilled survivors and capable of such journeys, the team said.

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Stone tools found in a cave in Siberia reveal that nomadic Neanderthals made an epic trek of more than 1,800 miles from eastern Europe around 59,000 years ago. Pictured, the Micoquian-style tools unearthed from Chagyrskaya Cave in the Altai foothills

The researchers have concluded that there were two separate long-distance migrations of Neanderthals into Siberia, about 40,000 years apart

Since it was first excavated in 2007, Chagyrskaya Cave — which lies in the foothills of Siberia’s Altai Mountains — has furnished 74 Neanderthals fossils, some 90,000 stone artefacts and the remains of both plants and animals.

In their study, archaeologist Kseniya Kolobova of the Russian Academy of Sciences and colleagues analysed more than 3,000 stone tools from the cave.

They used a technique called optical dating — which measures the last time that individual grains of quartz were exposed to sunlight — to determine when different sediments, artefacts and fossils were deposited in the cave.

The researchers also reconstructed the environmental conditions of that time based on the animal and plant remains, which suggested both that the climate was cold and dry and that the Neanderthals would have hunted bison and horses to survive. 

The team’s analysis revealed that the tools — which date back to around to 59,000–49,000 years ago — closely resemble the so-called ‘Micoquian’ tools used by Neanderthals in Eastern Europe, some 1,864 kilometres west of Chagyrskaya Cave.

Named after the La Micoque dig site in Dordogne, southwestern France, this stone age industry was characterised by distinctly asymmetrical two-faced tools.

‘Their distinctive stone tools are dead ringers for those found thousands of kilometres away in eastern and central Europe,’ Dr Kolobova and colleagues wrote in the Conservation.

In contrast, the team note that the tools found in the nearby Denisova Cave — which was occupied by Neanderthals more than 100,000 years ago — are not Micoquian.

Instead, they resemble the so-called ‘Levallois’ style — in which flakes were cut off of a pre-prepared stone core — and its successor, the ‘Mousterian’ style.

Since it was first excavated in 2007, Chagyrskaya Cave — which lies in the foothills of Siberia’s Altai Mountains — has furnished 74 Neanderthals fossils, some 90,000 stone artefacts and both the remains of plants and animals. Pictured, Neanderthal lower jaw bone fragments

The researchers also reconstructed the environmental conditions of that time based on the animal and plant remains — which suggested both that the climate was cold and dry and that the Neanderthals would have hunted bison and horses to survive. Pictured, an overview of the  remains found in Chagyrskaya Cave. The teeth and head fragments are not to scale

‘The presence of Micoquian artefacts at Chagyrskaya Cave suggests at least two separate dispersals of Neanderthals into southern Siberia,’ the researchers wrote.

‘Sites such as Denisova Cave were occupied by Neanderthals who entered the region before 100,000 years ago, while the Chagyrskaya Neanderthals arrived later.’

The team found that DNA analysis of the Neanderthal fossils supports the link between the Chagyrskaya Cave population and their counterparts in eastern Europe.

‘The Chagyrskaya Neanderthal [shares] closer affinities with several European Neanderthals than with a Neanderthal from Denisova Cave,’ the team explained.

‘When the Chagyrskaya toolmakers (or their ancestors) left their Neanderthal homeland in eastern Europe for central Asia around 60,000 years ago, they could have headed north and east around the land-locked Caspian Sea.’

This, they explained, ‘was much reduced in size under the prevailing cold and arid conditions.’ 

‘The presence of Micoquian artefacts at Chagyrskaya Cave suggests at least two separate dispersals of Neanderthals into southern Siberia,’ the researchers wrote

The team found that DNA analysis of the Neanderthal fossils supports the link between the population who lived in Chagyrskaya Cave, pictured, and their counterparts in eastern Europe

Evidence for such a long, transcontinental journey over thousands of miles — the equivalent today of trekking from New York to Los Angeles — is rare in the early Stone Age, the researchers noted.

The study, they added, ‘highlights the value of stone tools as culturally informative markers of ancient population movements.’ 

‘Our discoveries reinforce the emerging view of Neanderthals as creative and intelligent people who were skilled survivors,’ they wrote. 

‘If this was the case, it makes their extinction across Eurasia even more mysterious. Did modern humans deal the fatal blow? The enigma endures, for now.’

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

WHO WERE THE NEANDERTHALS?

The Neanderthals were a close human ancestor that mysteriously died out around 50,000 years ago.

The species lived in Africa with early humans for hundreds of millennia before moving across to Europe around 500,000 years ago.

They were later joined by humans taking the same journey some time in the past 100,000 years. 

The Neanderthals were a cousin species of humans but not a direct ancestor – the two species split from a common ancestor –  that perished around 50,000 years ago. Pictured is a Neanderthal museum exhibit

These were the original ‘cavemen’, historically thought to be dim-witted and brutish compared to modern humans.

In recent years though, and especially over the last decade, it has become increasingly apparent we’ve been selling Neanderthals short.

A growing body of evidence points to a more sophisticated and multi-talented kind of ‘caveman’ than anyone thought possible.

It now seems likely that Neanderthals buried their dead with the concept of an afterlife in mind.

Additionally, their diets and behaviour were surprisingly flexible.

They used body art such as pigments and beads, and they were the very first artists, with Neanderthal cave art (and symbolism) in Spain apparently predating the earliest modern human art by some 20,000 years.

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