Bones Found in Israel Rewrite Theory of Neanderthal Extinction

Neanderthals were thought to have been going extinct already when Homo sapiens arrived in the Levant, and to huddle in caves: Not so, discovery indicates.

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Leg bones of a young Neanderthal man, found at Ein Kashish in northern Israel - the first discovery of Neanderthal bones in an open-air context, not a cave, in the Levant. The picture shows the bones in situ, among rocks and mud, with a yardstick.
Leg bones of a young Neanderthal man, found at Ein Kashish: the first discovery of Neanderthal bones in an open-air context, not a cave, in the Levant. Credit: Erella Hovers
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Neanderthals are unarguably extinct while we Homo sapiens are not, but argument rages over how that happened. We still don't know, but an extremely rare discovery in Israel, of Neanderthal remains from about 60,000 years ago in an open-air site rather than a cave, taken with other Neanderthal discoveries around the country and region, debunk the theory that they were was already dying out when modern man arrived.

"They were not in danger of extinction at the time," avers Dr. Omry Barzilai of the Israel Antiquities Authority: "They ruled the area."

The discoveries, made in an open-air context, also belie the common assumption that the Neanderthals clung mostly to the cave lifestyle.

Obviously Neanderthals had to leave their rock shelters to spear woolly rhinos and whatnot, but otherwise, they were thought to have stayed close to the cave. Yet the Ein Kashish bones were found out in the open, indicating that they had a life beyond the confines of the rock walls. It is the first such discovery in the Levant.

"Anthropologists have claimed the Neanderthals' physical mechanics were suitable for mountain refuges, that they could survive where modern man couldn't," says Barzilai. And maybe they indeed thrived in the rarified heights. That doesn't mean they were dying everywhere else just yet.

Neanderthal upper molar, discovered at Ein Kashish in northern Israel.Credit: Erella Hovers

Actually modern men - Homo sapiens – is known to have reached the Levant between 120,000 and 90,000 years ago, but that exit from Africa evidently went extinct. Then sapiens appeared again about 55,000 years ago. Meanwhile, Neanderthals are known to have been in the Levant between about 80,000 and 55,000 years ago.

Neanderthals got about

The actual discoveries were bones of two individuals, not in a cave, but in an open-air site called Ein Kashish on the banks of the Kishon river, in northern Israel. Analysis has proven the bones to be of Neanderthal origin.

These were the first bones to be clearly proven to be Neanderthal, and to be found in an open-air context in the Levant. There are a few such finds elsewhere in the world, says the team. (The team also points out that there are other intriguing open-air sites in the Levant, they just can't tell whether the remains there are Neanderthal or Homo sapiens.)

Of one individual, all they found at Ein Kashish is a single molar, which was attributed to a Neanderthal using imaging and statistical techniques, says the Israel Antiquities Authority. That was found in association with flint tools and animal bones.

A flint spear point found in the context of the Ein Kashish Neanderthal discovery.Credit: Klara Amit, IAA

The second one is five lower limb bones—a femur, two tibias, and two fibulas - of a young Neanderthal, teenager or young man about 164 centimeters tall, who had injuries that would have caused limping. (Homo sapiens leg bones would have been more gracile; men were also quite a bit taller than Neanderthals.) The leg bones were also found with multiple artifacts, including flint tools, as well as animal bones and some unusual finds for this period, such as ochre; a roe deer antler, and a seashell.

The remains were dated to the late Middle Paleolithic period, between 70,000 and 60,000 years ago by Dr. Naomi Porat from the Geological Survey of Israel. That's about when modern man is believed to have come north from Africa and to have passed through here.

Genetic evidence shows that modern man and Neanderthal cross-bred after leaving Africa (modern non-Africans have Neanderthal genes, while Africans have none). Many believe the merry-making happened in Israel.

And maybe it did. To be sure, they met here: hybrids have been found. Now Barzilai argues that the local population of Neanderthals 60,000 years ago was robust, not dying out at all.

"One hypothesis among some anthropologists had been that when modern man arrived, Neanderthals were already weakened and would have died out anyway. But they were not at that point in danger of extinction. They ruled the area," says Barzilai: If they were already growing scarce, their remains from the time wouldn't have been found at so many sites in Israel.

Ein KashishCredit: Erella Hovers

There is one controversy that isn't laid to rest by the Ein Kashish findings. Barzilai for one seems confident that the Neanderthal ritualistically buried its dead and feels the site supports that theory. "Burial of the dead is the strongest territorial marker there could be," Barzilai remarks, and points at (controversial) evidence of Neanderthal burials in Iraq, for instance. Others, including, he admits, his co-author and colleague Erella Hovers of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, feel otherwise, and their paper, published in Nature, is noncommittal on this point.

The study was led by Dr. Ella Been from the Ono Academic College, Prof. Hovers from the Hebrew University and Dr. Barzilai from the IAA; funding was provided by the construction company Derekh Eretz. The molar was analyzed by Dr. Stefano Benazzi and team from the University of Ravenna in Italy and the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig.

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