Acting as a final stronghold against the rapid expansion of modern humans (Homo sapiens), the Iberian Peninsula (now containing Spain, Portugal, and a small area of Southern France) was believed to be the final site Neanderthals made their home before occupation from humans. By around 37,000-30,000 years ago, all other Neanderthal populations had disappeared from the rest of Europe.
When the Iberian Peninsula was finally overrun by Homo sapiens, this was claimed to be the ultimate blow for Neanderthals and the ancient hominid species was no more. However, new research published in PNAS upsets this model by suggesting that modern humans reached the Iberian Peninsula earlier than previously thought.
"I've been excavating at Picareiro for 25 years and just when you start to think it might be done giving up its secrets, a new surprise gets unearthed," lead author Jonathan Haws, a professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Louisville, said in the press release. "Every few years something remarkable turns up and we keep digging."
Stone tools like blades and flakes, likely used in cooking and hunting, were found in the Lapa do Picareiro cave, Portugal, suggesting Homo sapiens had settled in the area 41,000-38,000 years ago, around 5,000 years earlier than previously thought. Not only does this alter our understanding of how rapidly modern humans spread throughout Europe but it also suggests an overlap of potentially thousands of years between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals.
Prior to this discovery, researchers had already found a wealth of archaeological artifacts, including animal bones, fire ash, and bone/shell fragments.
Whilst humans dispersed all across Northern Europe, their progress into the South-West was assumed to be halted by high Neanderthal populations as no evidence of their presence was found in the area. Following this discovery, the researchers now believe that modern humans spread relatively unhindered throughout Europe.
“Modern humans may have encountered a few remnant Neanderthal groups but it appears that most of Iberia south of the Ebro was already depopulated,” say the authors.
Cold, dry periods of extremely low water supply may have also depleted many of the Neanderthal populations, allowing for the dispersal of modern humans, who likely avoided the arid regions of Iberia and followed river drainages as they spread throughout the Peninsula, occupying the land left by Neanderthals.
Even though it is likely that modern humans lived in close proximity to Neanderthals, the authors state there is still no evidence the two species interacted. In fact, the increased competition for the same resources may have led to the Neanderthals’ downfall.
As the paper states: “The presence of modern humans overlapping in time lends support to competitive exclusion as an explanation for Neanderthal extinction."