Were There Neanderthals in Denmark? If So, They Could Sail or Swim

No evidence of early hominin occupation has been found in Denmark, but stones from a layer dating to about 120,000 years ago do resemble stone tools, say Danish archaeologists

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Artist's impression of what a Neanderthal may have looked like.
Artist's impression of what a Neanderthal may have looked like.Credit: Mr. N (Ausschnitt) / ©Neanderth
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Not far from Copenhagen as the pterodactyl flies lies the site of Ejby Klint, surrounded by the sea. The question is who discovered this inviting island first. Could its first inhabitants have been Neanderthals? Just possibly, and if so they could either swim very well or sail, say Danish archaeologists from Roskilde Museum and the National Museum of Denmark excavating the site.

The theory that Neanderthals may have reached Denmark began with three rocks that may have been stone tools in a layer dating to about 120,000 years ago, found in the 1960s by an amateur archaeologist named Erik Madsen. The time was the last interglacial period and is known as the Eemian epoch. Archaeologists now excavating two spots on Ejby Klint have found more stones that could be knapped flakes or acts of Nature.

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If these tools really were fashioned artifacts and not just natural flints that got banged about in the surf, they would likely have been made by Neanderthals – the only known inhabitants of western Eurasia during the Eemian.

Arguing against their identification as tools: No evidence has been found to date of early human occupation of Denmark. None. The earliest proven hominin presence in Denmark is Homo sapiens hunter-gatherers who lived there around 14,000 years ago.

Excavating on the Danish island of Ejby Klint.Credit: Troels Donnerborg Nationalmuseet

Also countering the notion: If these are stone tools, they’re a far cry from the state of lithic technology at the time. Neanderthals 120,000 years ago were making highly advanced tools. Of course, they were also making more cruder tool types, and that needn’t be seen as reversion to a primitive state. Lithic technologies overlap in time. (Note ye that in an era of electric cars and maglev, some people still ride quadrupeds.) To sum up this point, the simple nature of the “tools” found to date on Ejby Klint argues for Nature, not manufacture.

Neanderthals doing backstroke

On the yes-Neanderthals side, it would be plausible that they did reach Denmark in the Eemian, for several reasons.

The weather wasn’t an issue. The time, 120,000 years ago, was the tail-end of an interglacial period believed to have begun about 130,000 years ago. The country wasn’t ice-bound. It was a hospitable 3 to 4 degrees Celsius warmer than today, and that’s after factoring in present climate change, says Lasse Sørensen, head of research at the National Museum of Denmark.

Moreover, the forested land teemed with tasty animals, including prehistoric favorites such as elephants and deer. It would have been a fabulous place for hungry hunter-gathering hominins.

Contrary to appearances, this is not a Neanderthal toaster but either a stone tool or a fluke of Nature.Credit: Roskilde Museum

Furthermore, the different members of the Homo genus in general got about, and the various Neanderthal variants specifically certainly did too – as far as the natural boundaries enabled it. (Classic Neanderthals thronged western Eurasia, while their offshoot variant the Denisovans lived more in the east, with some overlap between their stamping grounds.) In any case, the hominin wanderlust would also argue in favor of a Neanderthal presence in interglacial Denmark.

Even if Neanderthals were in the area, could they reach Ejby Klint?  We noted that the Eemian was a very warm interglacial, and average sea levels were around 3 to 4 meters (10 to 13 feet) higher than today, Sørensen tells Haaretz. Then and now, Ejby Klint was an island. “They had two options to get there: they could swim or sail,” he says.

Asked how long the swim would have been, Sørensen points out that there are plenty of islands in Denmark. “Maybe they leapfrogged from one island to another,” he speculates.

Swimming Neanderthals wouldn’t be a stretch anymore. The present thinking is that Neanderthals in Italy at least could not only swim well, they would dive as deep as 4 meters for clams.

Neanderthal stone tool or artifact of Nature?Credit: Roskilde Museum

And/or maybe Neanderthals could sail. Evidence of hominin activity has been found on the Greek island of Naxos from 200,000 years ago, likely if not certainly industry by Neanderthals. Evidence of Neanderthal activity has been found on the Greek islands of Kefalonia, Lefkada and Zakynthos dating to 100,000 years ago, and on Crete as well – dating to about 130,000 years in that case.

While the Aegean Sea was much lower at some points, Kefalonia and Crete are surrounded by deep sea troughs and were always islands. Nobody could walk there, even if the Aegean all but dried up.

Does that prove Neanderthals sailed? It does not. Maybe they swam really well, as we can when we have to.

Where Neanderthals did not tread

Knapped stone flake or banged about by Nature?Credit: Roskilde Museum

It bears adding that Homo sapiens were already exiting Africa in the Eemian, though how far they got is unclear. Also, after meeting and mating with Neanderthals, the early sapiens migrants went extinct.

Against the Danish Neanderthal, one could draw an imaginary line stretching from Amsterdam to Berlin to Warsaw, above which there is precious little evidence of Neanderthals, Sørensen says. Perhaps they didn’t spread northward of that line because during the glacial periods ice sheets covered the land.

Or, perhaps we just haven’t found the evidence, which would lie very deep in the ground – say, 5 or 10 meters beneath the moraine sediment laid down by the glaciers when they did cover the land. Further south, hominin evidence has been found 10.5 meters below the glacial sediment, he says.

The postulated tools of Ejby Klint were found on a cliffside where erosion rendered the ancient layers accessible. The layer was identified as belonging to the Eemian warm period based on shells that only thrive in warmer water, Sørensen explains. In other words, the area now being explored by the archaeologists was, back then, a balmy beach.

Another stone flake eith.er knapped or banged about by Nature?Credit: Roskilde Museum

It bears adding that the archaeological community waxed skeptical of Madsen’s finds (the reaction of two of them was a “huge maybe,” Sørensen says).

It also bears adding that lithic finds have been made in Danish contexts but they weren’t in situ, but loose. Many argue that they probably date to the Mesolithic and/or Neolithic periods, when we already know Homo sapiens had reached the area.

So what have we here? Some stones that may or may not be tools – the Danish scientists are only cautiously suggesting they may be tools. Other evidence of such early prehistoric occupation of the region may be buried deep. The postulated tools could be naturally formed stones.

Sørensen points out that nobody has published research on how Mother Nature knaps flint, and he believes that is one of the necessary follow-up studies. How do such rocks occur in nature? Are flints getting banged about in the surf likely to attain such shapes, for instance? Could it be pressure from the ice?

Postulated Neanderthal tool.Credit: Roskilde Museum

Beyond experimentation, the situation cries out for more expert archaeological exploration of appropriate sites in Denmark. Identifying the right sites is like finding a needle in a haystack, he observes. Not a problem we have in Israel, where archaeological sites abound – it’s more like finding hay in a haystack here.

All this said, a claim has been raised that four stone hand ax-type tools were found in Denmark, and that the nation has at least four potential Paleolithic sites, one of which is our Ejby Klint. That very paper, however, suggested that only one of the axes was demonstrably from the Paleolithic and the others were likely dated to the Mesolithic, the Neolithic or even the Chalcolithic – i.e., the transition out of the Stone Age.

And we shall end with a note that the title of the translated hand ax paper is “Hand Axes from Denmark: Neanderthal Tools or Vicious Flints?” That stemmed from a catfight in Danish archaeological circles about the flints in question, during which Prof. Peter Vilhelm Glob, a Neanderthals-in-Denmark skeptic who doesn't rule out the theory but wants better proof, charged that his distinguished colleague was seeing archaeological “flying saucers” and penned a paper in 1972 called “Farligflint” which was translated as "vicious flint." Nu.

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As Sørensen puts it, there are rocks out there that may indeed attest to hominin presence in interglacial Denmark. But if we can’t learn how old they are, they don’t mean much. As for wishful thinking coloring archaeological reportage, note the case of the “Neanderthal flute” dating to 43,100 years ago and consisting of perforated cave-bear bone, found at Divje Babe, Slovenia. Was it one of the world’s first musical instruments or the remains of a hyena’s breakfast? To this day, the jury is out. Slightly later flutes found in Germany from around 35,000 years ago are less ambiguous: they’re engraved.

The bottom line is that proving whether or not Neanderthals thronged prehistoric Denmark will require further archaeological exploration. The conveniently stratified cliffs of Ejby Klint could be the game-changer.

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