Interview with Clive Finlayson about Neandertal lifeways


[ Music ] Clive Finlayson is Director of the Gibraltar
Museum, and one of the world’s foremost experts on the behavior of the latest Neandertals.
He took me into Gorham’s cave at the base of the Rock of Gibraltar, and in the back
of the cave, where some of the most interesting evidence of late Neandertals have been found,
we had a conversation about how Neandertals were fitting into their ecology and what factors
may have led to their disappearance. We’re here in the Gorham’s cave, and this
is the place right now, where we have the most recent dates for Neandertals anywhere
in the world. That’s right. It came as a surprise to us.
Back in 2005, it was published in ’06, we weren�t looking for late Neandertals. We
just decided that this part of the cave never had been excavated. And we went through a
series of levels, there’s four levels here, identifiable, the most recent one at the top
is Phoenician-Carthaginian, then you’ve got a Neolithic level, then you’ve got a Paleolithic
represented by Magdalenian and Solutrean, and below you have the Neandertal level with
Mousterian. And we came across a hearth, in that corner
down there, you know, like the ones that you see in our site, that kind of, real structure,
structured hearth, so we decided to, to radio-carbon date, so we sent some, from the different
parts of each, of the hearth, some charcoals for dating. And when the results came back, we thought
now, this was wrong, precisely because they looked very young. So we just kept quiet about
this and came back and took more samples, and did it again. And the same results came
back. And, you know, we’re still working in this level and, and other things, we’re trying
to use other techniques, as well, to, to date the level, to strengthen that information,
but we’re very confident that we have here is at the time we, we published it as 28,000
years ago, those are un-calibrated dates, because the, the calibration curve for that
period was not available, and now it is. So, basically, those dates now translate to
around 31-32,000 years ago. And that just still makes them the, the last known Neandertals
to have lived on the planet, it doesn’t mean the last Neandertals lived here necessarily,
but it’s where the evidence is and, you know, we think that this reflects a refuge, a coastal
refuge, that would probably stretch from here to Portugal, which had a lot of advantages
promoting late survival and also survival of many other species. This cannot be seen out of context, in ecological
terms. Lots of species that, later on, recolonize Europe, parts of Europe, literally survived
through the glacial periods in this part of the world. And there, we’ve got a lot of strong evidence
from pollen, from marine mollusks, from the fauna, that shows that even at the heights
of the glacial maximum, when, you know, Britain was 2 kilometers at the rise and, and the
buildup to that, which when the Neandertals go extinct, you know, you might have that,
you don’t find a single wooly mammoth here. You don’t find a reindeer, nothing representative
of cold fauna reaches this. And they’re close by, but they’re not here in the, in the coast. And yet, you have olives growing, and you
have all the species which are indicators, Hermann’s tortoise which needs 17 Celsius
annual temperature to reproduce, they’re still here. So, so this idea of a refuge fits in
with this late Neandertal survival. But we found it here, and then we started
to think, well, you know, why was this place so important for the Neandertals� location,
because the dates weren’t just 32, they’d gone to 33, 34, 35, so they keep coming over
and over and using this, this fire, now. For some, most Neandertal sites, I think the
hearths tend to be like, like the entrance of Gorham’s, they tend to be on the outside.
You don’t want to smoke in your rock shelter or your cave, but here they do. We’re quite
deep in the cave here. Yeah, we are probably a hundred meters from
the entrance, longer maybe. Well, yeah, there’s a significance difference
in distance, I mean, maybe, maybe 50 to 60 meters, at least. And you can see the light,
even now, comes into the back of the cave, why would you put a fire here? Well, it’s the narrowest point in the cave,
so that may give you a hint, and what would happen to the smoke? Well, if we go look right
out, it’s like a natural chimney. So the smoke would have risen that way. So, it would be
a good place, with hyenas roaming up there and leopards and all kinds of wolves, to retire
to, even when you got activities outside, retire to the night, light the fire, you’re
not going to smoke yourself in, and you’re protected. But it looks pretty confined in here for a
group, but of course it wasn’t like this, because if you look in there, okay, this is
what Captain Gorham found in 1907. That’s, you need to crawl through, Geraldine did it
many years ago, I haven’t actually gone to the end because it’s extremely narrow, but
what we’re doing is excavating down, and that goes on for 35 meters – another 35 meters. So there would have been a huge chamber here
where the Neandertals would have had relative comfort and safety. So we think that’s the
story. But the story doesn’t end there. You know, if we forgot Neandertals and modern
humans, their taxonomy, just think of people. What happens? Well, these early people, the
Neandertals disappear one day, they don’t come back, later on after a break, other people
come Solutreans, modern humans, some people would like to call them. People, and they do almost the same, because
look, here’s, we haven’t excavated yet, there’s that structure there, it’s a hearth, we can
even see bones there, little rabbit or something, so they’re putting a fire almost in the same
position, probably for similar reasons. And if you crawl to the back of the cave,
it’s very exciting, because what you find at the back there is, so far, there’s this
painted stack, beautiful, like the ones you would see in Northern Spain and France, and
two hands, you know, these negative, where then, people have, then you know, in the children’s
hands, on charcoal. And we haven’t published this yet, but there’s no mystery to this,
but we took a sample from that, and it gives a date of 20,000. So 20,000 years ago, the
Solutreans came and replaced the Neandertal or, or came after the Neandertals. We’re almost
doing the same thing as the Neandertals were doing before them. Just the context right? 20,000 years ago,
less glacial maximum, you’ve got the same situation as had recurred, you know, again
and again, and again, you’ve got people down here, they’re using this because it is a kind
of place where people can live, yeah. Yeah, and when you look at, for example, the,
the profile of the bones that come out with cutmarks, the species, compositions and so
on, the shellfish, you know, the mollusks that, that Darren’s been looking at, the plants
that Geraldine’s been looking at. If you were given, if you looked at the modern
human level, shall we say, and the proceeding Neandertal level, and you weren’t told which
it was, there is no practically no difference. The, the correlations are, you know, the,
the variance explained, this is close to 90 percent. I mean, it’s, you couldn’t tell the
difference, maybe the paintings on the walls, other than that, you couldn’t tell the difference
from the foreigner and the, the processing of. Right. There are different traditions. They’re
different peoples, you know, even, even if, even if Neandertals contributed to later people,
they’re, they’re far apart in time. They’re not, they’re not [pause] information inheritors,
of the Neandertals, necessarily, but they’re ecological inheritors in the sense that they’re
using the same stuff. Yeah, I mean, they may have had different
fashions, cultural differences, which we sometimes confuse for biological differences, after
all, you know, we talking thousands of years later, but faced with similar ecology, the
solutions are going to be very similar, and essentially, they go out, look out of the
window, and they have a choice, and they exploit that choice, in a very similar way. Aand I think that when we look at past interpretations
of subsistance strategies in Neandertals versus modern humans and so on, very often, we are
confusing context with taxonomy, or with, with the phylogenetics if you like, and very
often, what you see, the differences have more to do with the place and the way things
are exploited rather than who they are. When you come to places like this, where the context
changes little, the taxonomy changes, but the way of exploiting the environment is very
similar. So with humans, when we talk about human biology
being a combination of genes and environment, we could also maybe extend to say when we
look at human behavior, in the archeological context, it’s, it’s not only a combination
of, of genes and environment, you know, the psychological systems and so on, it’s also,
very particularly, the microenvironment. So around this site there are certain kinds of
activities that make sense and you see those sites being used for that reason. It, it sounds deterministic, which pushes
it up to a point, but it’s, it’s more about having a choice and exploiting that choice
as an intelligence hominin, and very often you’re going to be doing similar things, because,
because of the choices that are available to you. So you, your able to, to, but, by and large,
the ecology tends to, in some way guide you, and, and it’s, it’s the �larder� . You’ve
got a larder up there, and it’s like at home, you know, you open the fridge and you have
certain things. And one day you might choose one or might choose another, but you’re going
to be eating what’s in the fridge or what’s in the supermarket. So it’s similar. So, why are we not Neandertals? You know,
what, what accounts for the fact that Neandertals had their time and, and then later you see
different kinds of people here? Yeah, I mean, there’s some would argue that
there’s an element of Neandertals in us still today. Well there absolutely is, right? Your, you,
everybody watching this is going to know my attitude about this, so, so [laughter]. But it would mean that Neandertals didn’t
disappear, but I think we would agree that the phenotype. That’s it, yeah. Of the Neandertal is no longer around. That’s right. That was a population that had
its day. And, and its day ended, and, and that, I think, is so fascinating to people,
obviously, but, but in a way, fundamentally, you know, this place is maybe the most information
we have anywhere about it. I mean, the point is why did they disappear,
and, well, we assume, maybe from present-day genetics looking backwards, that we were our
species was successful, but how many population, of our populations never made it, I mean,
the Neandertals never made it, so, for similar reasons. So to what degree has this got to
do with being good or bad or simply the luck of the draw? I think a lot of it had to with the luck of
the draw. I’m a great believer that the chance events in small population can make a difference.
And I think these, these Neandertal populations had been hit hard across the continent over
and over again by climate change, to a large degree, altering their habitats, altering
the way, you know, the, the kind of environments that they were good at exploiting, until you
ended up with a series of population, maybe one here, maybe one here [inaudible], maybe
one somewhere else, maybe one in Siberia, we don’t know. And, and the point is, it’s
like pandas or tigers, once your population’s reached such low numbers, even if the conditions
are good out there, you’re living dead, you’re going to go extinct for, for, purely for genetic
reason, inbreeding or numbers, you’re numbers are so small that one of these random fluctuations
and you’re out, and there’s no recovery from extinction. Once you go below 0, then that’s
it, or you reach 0. This is what we call an absorbing state [laughter]. So, but there were other populations, and
one of those happened to expand, or a series of them expanded and colonized certain parts
of Europe, and made it through that particular stage. I don’t think we need to look further
than that. I think that’s a huge element of that. You have a lot of populations of people,
some characteristic, with a characteristic of Neandertals. Probably with their morphology better suited
to sort of kind of ambush hunting in, in the kind of environments that we had up to Gorham’s
cave. Maybe they weren’t so good as large-scale roaming over the open steppes, treeless steppes,
maybe there was a, a mechanical constraint there or [inaudible] constraint. Maybe some
of these other people may be coming from the plains in Africa or somewhere, where, I hate
to use the word adaptive, but their morphology was better suited to large-scale roaming,
and at a particular time when open steppe habitats were spreading, they, they reached
all the way to, to Central Spain. I mean, you would get saiga antelopes, which
you have to go to Central Asia to find, you find the evidence of them there. Or they were
just tracking resources, the kinds of resources and the way of life that, that these other
people, but the story here shows you something else. When those, people used to exploiting
these open plains and so on, come to this kind of environment, they adopt the Neandertal
way. Yeah, yeah. So there is that flexibility, as well. Context
again. Now, before we leave this part of the cave,
I just want to ask about Carthaginians, because this cave is, you know, has continuously been
open to the outside and people have used this cave throughout the ages and, in particular,
in historic times, so, we’re famously on one of the Pillars of Hercules [laughing], and
there were rituals going on in here. Yeah, this is the exciting thing, when you
start working here, the very top, the most recent level, we’ve got a very well dated,
it starts in the 8th century, BC, through till the time of the Romans in the 2nd century.
And people are coming here. First it’s Phoenicians from present day Lebanon, [inaudible], they’re
coming all the way here. And then the Carthaginians’ they set up their,
their descendants in Carthage and near Tunisia, and the Western Mediterranean, and it seems
that, you know, this is one of the columns. The other one is in North Africa. It’s very
visible, it’s the end of the world. In theory, because we know they’re going across, so you
have to make offerings and, and worship. A lot of intact ceramics, a lot of votive offerings,
scarabs, show an international dimension to the cave. But the time, of course, the sea level is
where it tis now, so they were beaching the boats and coming up. But you find Corinthian,
Athenian ceramics, you find some of the scarabs or, or the Egyptian hieroglyphs, so it’s from,
you know, it, it’s a shrine to the gods, possibly [inaudible] the precursor of Heracles and
eventually Hercules, so the columns may have been initially a male cat, but, you know,
I, I see something here that also tells me about the human mind, and how little it’s
changed the way we think. It’s quite clear that the Carthaginians were
going beyond the end of the world. It’s quite clear they were going and, and trading with
the, the native peoples for metals and minerals. There may have been an element of perpetuating
the myth, perpetuating the myth to corner of the markets. And prevent the Greeks and
others from going beyond the end of the world [laughter], so this, this may have a greater
significance than the purely spiritual and religious, but that’s my take. They were like paleoanthropologists [laughter].
Perpetuate the myth that things were very rare and we should keep them hidden so that
we can have them. So anyway, so that’s, that’s my take on it.
But the fact is it’s nice to have a cave with, you know, it’s 18 meters in vertical deposit,
we know so far. 16 and a half of those are Neandertals. Then you’ve got maybe another
bit, which is modern human, pre and post glaciation, maybe have a bit of Neolithic, and that at
the end of this, the little icing on the cake, that little, thin layer which represents 400-500
years of these people coming here. And here we are living on top of our history,
as we always do. This is our little time machine. This is the
nearest thing we’ve got to, to time traveling. Okay, alright.

Posts Tagged with…

Reader Comments

  1. Ana Surena

    Clive: "They [i.e. the Neanderthals] may have had different fashions, cultural differences, which we sometimes confuse for biological differences…" 
    Similar, almost congruent mindsets, that is indeed something for the history books, notwithstanding the fact that both Neanderthals and 'Solutreans' that have inhabited the cave were thousands of years apart from each other.

  2. Jutta Maier

    Why Neanderthals desappeared? They lived in todays Europe for at least 180'000 years, but there were no more than 10'000 individuals at the best of times. When homo sapiens arrived, they coexisted for 6000-8000years before the phenotype of the Neanderthal dissappeared. Clearly, they were genetically washed out

  3. Tanya Juli

    simply amazing. To have his job–16 meters of deposits? His perspective on time must approach Einstein's.
    Excellent interview. Thanks so much for posting it.

  4. tongmaa

    Great stuff, but the ability to inter-breed in similar varieties of hominids proves the old saw about the survival-of-the-fittest. It was the ability to communicate and pass-on knowledge in words that slowly evolved our ancestors from Homo sapiens to the present Homo sapiens sapiens. Even that designation indicates the course of human evolution to the present. In giving this education, the producers and educators are advancing evolution for those who will listen and try to understand — as well in passing the Data on to the future 🙂

  5. Conrad Villarez

    EVEN MATHEMATICS HAS DIS-PROVEN OF THE CONJECTURAL SPECULATION OF DARWINIAN RACISTS/ EVOLUTIONISTS THAT MODERN EUROPEANS HAVE 40% NEANDERTHAL DNA…THAT HAS NO ANY BASIS IN SCIENCE!!!!!! EAST ASIANS HAVE 30% MORE OF NEANDERTHAL DNA THAN EUROPEANS.
    ANDREA MANICA HAS PUBLISHED A SCIENTIFIC PAPER THAT REFUTES SVANTE PAABO’S GUESSWORK YOU CITED… THE LAST LAST LIVING APPEARANCE OF NEANDERTHALS WAS 4O THOUSAND YEARS AGO. USING THE 50-50 SHARING OF PARENTS' DNAs TO OFFSPRING, JUST ON THE 8TH GENERATION THE DNA OF THE EITHER PARENTS IN THE 1ST GENERATION, SHALL ONLY BE 0.39% (THAT IS LESS THAN 1%) IN THE OFFSPRING. IN 40 THOUSAND YEARS THERE ARE ALMOST THREE THOUSANDS THREE HUNDRED THIRTY (3,330) GENERATIONS, THAT MAKES THE PRESENCE OF NEANDERTHAL DNA NIL IN ANY MODERN EUROPEAN EVEN WHEN TWO ANCESTRAL PARENTS HAD THE SAME/EQUAL PERCENTAGE OF NEANDERTHAL DNA IN EVERY GENERATION. ANDREA MANICA INVOKED THE COMMON ANCESTOR OF HOMO SAPIENS AND NEANDERTHALS AS EXPLANATION OF NEANDERTHAL DNA IN SEVERAL MODERN HUMANS BECAUSE IF INTERBREEDING HAPPENED BETWEEN SAPIENS AND NEANDERTHALS 40 THOUSAND YEARS AGO, THERE SHALL BE NIL OR ZERO NEANDERTHAL DNA LEFT IN ANY MODERN HUMAN BY NOW. REMEMBER, THAT EAST ASIANS HAVE A HIGHER NEANDERTHAL DNA THAN MODERN EUROPEANS. BESIDES, IF COMMON ANCESTOR WAS THE REASON OF NEANDERTHAL DNA IN HOMO SAPIENS SAPIENS, WHY THERE ARE NO AFRICANS HAVING NEANDERTHAL DNA AMONG THEM, BUT ONLY EUROPEANS AND EAST ASIANS HAVE THEM. RATHER, I INVOKE HORIZONTAL GENE TRANSFER (HGT) AS REASON OF NEANDERTHAL DNA IN HUMANS; THAT IS, SEVERAL EUROPEANS, AND EAST ASIANS HAD HUNTED NEANDERTHALS FOR FOOD, AND ATE THEM.
    PLUS, IN EVERY HYBRIDIZATION OF TWO DIFFERENT SPECIES, THE OFFSPRING HAS THE EXACT mtDNA AS THE FEMALE PROGENITOR, WHY WAS IT THAT NO mtDNA of NEANDERTHAL PROGENITOR PRESENT IN ANY EUROPEAN IF THERE WAS INTERBREEDING????? THE ANSWER: NO CROSS BREEDING TOOK PLACE BETWEEN NEANDERTHALS AND SAPIENS!!!!! TAKE NOTE THAT LAWS OF HYBRIDIZATION (MENDELIAN HEREDITY) IN NATURE CANNOT BE DISPROVEN BY A PAPER OF GUESSWORK… JA GET ME???

  6. Elizabeth Ford

    I love the perspective that both species exploited the environment in similar ways and there's little difference between the archaeological records

Write a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *