The “last Neanderthal technology” shows the species was in trouble before modern humans got to Europe

What happened to their supply lines?
Grant Currin
A Neanderthal using a tool
A Neanderthal using a tool

gorodenkoff/iStock 

Neanderthals didn’t disappear all at once. In fact, these near-humans never really disappeared entirely. That’s because most modern people whose ancestors hail from Europe or Asia — where Neanderthals lived — are part Neanderthal themselves. 

That stunning fact, uncovered in recent decades by genetic analysis, hints at the complex history that must have unfolded when anatomically modern humans started encountering Neanderthals who’d been living in Eurasia for hundreds of thousands of years. 

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While this genetic evidence proves that our ancestors bred across what we now see as lines separating the two species, archaeological evidence from that time — 40,000-or-so years ago — is scant. 

That’s why researchers are so excited about what’s just been discovered in an archaeological dig near the coast in what’s now Basque Country, Spain. You can read IE's coverage of the discovery here. We caught up with the lead author to learn how the findings fit into the bigger picture.

Archaeologist Joseba Rios-Garaizar tells IE the site would have been as much as six miles from the coast when Neanderthals lived there.

“These people were using this place because it’s very close to a source of very good quality flint. They were quarrying it and bringing it to the site for making blades,” he says.

While excavating the site, known as Aranbaltza II, Rios-Garaizar and his colleagues found more than 5,000 blades and fragments “that were broken during the fabrication process.”

What they didn’t find was any evidence that Neanderthals lived in the exact spot where they did that work (archaeologists typically limit their excavation to small patches). They didn’t find any evidence of structures and very few signs of fire. There probably was a dwelling “very close to the site, but we haven't found it.”

“It's more like a flint workshop,” he says. They found a lot of evidence that the Neanderthals who worked there were on the cutting edge of stone-age technology.

Neanderthal groups had distinctive tool-making styles 

The stone tools — archaeologists call them “lithics” — that Neanderthals and other now-extinct hominins used are surprisingly sophisticated.

“It is really, really clear that there was social organization behind the production of lithics,” Rios-Garaizar says. “That implies there were technical norms about how to do things. These people were making things in a precise way. They applied their technical knowledge to different materials to make what they wanted. This means there was a process of learning and teaching. Knappers learned from other knappers how to do things,” he says.

The “last Neanderthal technology” shows the species was in trouble before modern humans got to Europe
A primitive axe
Sasha_Shukin/iStock 

In the middle paleolithic period— a broad span of time that began 300,000 years ago and ended just 30,000 years ago — Neanderthals made tools for cutting and scraping by using a stone to knock flakes of flint off of a bigger piece. There isn't just one way to do this, but some approaches work while others don’t. While various groups of Neanderthals used “many different systems” for making these flake tools, the basic technology was “the basis of their industry.”

But when it came to particular, different groups used different techniques. 

“If you compare the middle Paleolithic in the Iberian Peninsula, France, Germany, Eastern Europe, and Italy, they look similar in some ways, but really different [in others],” Rios-Garaizar says. “You can tell that Neanderthals have different cultural traditions. They had groups distributed [across space and time] through Eurasia.”

These distinct traditions of toolmaking offer archeologists a rare opportunity to understand how Neanderthals lived in groups. One of their best methods for understanding how these groups were related is by analyzing the techniques they used to make their tools, called “technocomplexes.”

“There is a sort of what we call culture in the Paleolithic. Not civilization but culture,” he says. Those groups “share the same technological choices, the same way of life, and probably also genes. They shared materials, knowledge, and other kinds of things,” he says.”

The archeological record shows that when innovations emerged, they spread within groups and sometimes from one group to another. 

“At different times during the middle Paleolithic, some inventions and innovations were transmitted inside [a] group and also to [groups in] different areas in Europe,” Rios-Garaizar says. That means there was “cultural transmission — and probably the interchange of knowledge — between groups.”

Several important technologies spread through the Neanderthal world in this way, including the use of glue, certain bone tools, and the reddish pigment ochre, as well as flint knapping methods. 

The 5,000 artifacts Rios-Garaizar and his colleagues found in their excavation offer tantalizing clues about how and when the very last one of those technological innovations spread across the continent.

Châtelperronian were Neanderthal's last great invention — probably 

In the 1840s, workers building a railroad in Châtelperron, France, discovered some caves that later archaeologists would discover contained the remains of tools that are significantly different from other Neanderthal lithics. For many archaeologists — including Rios-Garaizar — those findings show that “at the end of the middle Paleolithic, something changed.” 

“In the middle of France, some Neanderthals started changing technologies. They left aside the flakes and started making blades,” he says. 

To a trained eye, the difference between the two types of artifacts is clear.

“Flakes are more or less quadrangular. You can have different edges. Some are just for cutting, and you can make tools with points,” he says. Blades, on the other hand, are more elongated. “You can retouch them to get different forms, but what you get is something that’s more or less standardized in terms of morphology,” he says.

The blades and other artifacts found along with them are so distinctive that archaeologists call the style — and the group that likely made them — Châtelperronian.

There’s a lively debate among archaeologists as to who, exactly, the Châtelperronians were. The tools in the French caves were found near the skeletal remains of Neanderthals, leading most scholars to attribute the technology to them. However, others think it was anatomically modern humans that made the Châtelperronian tools or that they at least influenced the Neanderthals who did so. 

Archaeologists have found Châtelperronian artifacts at sites across France and in Northern Spain, leading researchers like Rios-Garaizar to see “a territory from the Paris Basin to the North Iberian peninsula.” 

If the Châtelperronians-were-Neanderthals team is right, the technology is especially fascinating because it appears to be the very last wave of innovation to ripple through Neanderthal Europe.

“After the Châtelperronian, anatomically modern humans entered Europe and occupied the entire [continent]. The Neanderthal species simply disappeared. So, this is the last Neanderthal technology,” he says. More recent artifacts are decisively the product of anatomically modern humans.

The Neanderthals' final millennia were probably more tumultuous than researchers previously thought 

Aranbaltza II is the newest of three sites within a few dozen feet of each other. The oldest site dates back roughly 100,000 years, and the middle site dates to roughly 50,000 years ago. For Rios-Garaizar and his colleagues, the 43,000-year-old Châtelperronian artifacts they found at the most recent site are important because they offer a rare insight into what was happening to Neanderthals when anatomically modern humans started their slow takeover of Europe.

They found the Châtelperronian artifacts a couple of layers above the artifacts from the next-oldest site. Separating the two caches is an “archaeologically sterile” layer of Earth. That suggests the Châtelperronian residents were a completely different group from the Neanderthals that had lived there earlier. The technologies are so different that the earlier group didn’t seem to have influenced the more recent one at all.

“I think we have reasonably demonstrated that Neanderthals simply disappeared from the region, which had been occupied for thousands of years. It [sat] empty for at least 1,000 years [before] other Neanderthals came.” 

The researchers take that as evidence that Neanderthals were already experiencing “some kind of demographic crisis” before anatomically modern humans arrived in Europe, he says. “They probably had problems with getting resources, animals, food, or materials.”

That long stretch of time when the high-quality flint that multiple groups of Neanderthals had exploited over the years [was not present] is further evidence of a suspected “disentangling of the networks created by Neanderthals that started maybe 50,000 years ago,” he says. 

If Neanderthals were already facing massive catastrophes that forced local populations into extinction, it might not have been too hard for anatomically modern humans to find footing in Europe.

“This empty space probably helped the modern humans to enter [the continent] quickly and to wipe out the Neanderthals or to [breed] with them and create a new population, which is [why they] didn't disappear completely,” he says. 

“Probably the situation was very complex, but we are saying… Neanderthals were experiencing population problems before modern humans arrived to Western Europe.”

Study Abstract:

Multiple factors have been proposed to explain the disappearance of Neandertals between ca. 50 and 40 kyr BP. Central to these discussions has been the identification of new techno-cultural complexes that overlap with the period of Neandertal demise in Europe. One such complex is the Châtelperronian, which extends from the Paris Basin to the Northern Iberian Peninsula between 43,760–39,220 BP. In this study we present the first open-air Châtelperronian site in the Northern Iberian Peninsula, Aranbaltza II. The technological features of its stone tool assemblage show no links with previous Middle Paleolithic technology in the region, and chronological modeling reveals a gap between the latest Middle Paleolithic and the Châtelperronian in this area. We interpret this as evidence of local Neandertal extinction and replacement by other Neandertal groups coming from southern France, illustrating how local extinction episodes could have played a role in the process of disappearance of Neandertals.