Archaeologists are discovering Neanderthals and Homo sapiens using the same Nubian technology

View from Shukba cave. Credit: Amos Frumkin

The newly analyzed teeth of a 9-year-old Neanderthal child, kept for a long time in a special collection, mark the southernmost known part of the hominin. Analysis of the associated archaeological findings shows that Neanderthals used Nubian Levallois technology, which was previously thought to be limited to Homo sapiens.

With a high concentration of cave sites that hold evidence of past populations and behaviors, the Levant is a leading center for human studies. For more than a century, archeological excavations in the Levant have produced human fossils and stone tool combinations that reveal landscapes inhabited by both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, making the region a potential source of confusion between populations. It is difficult to distinguish these populations only by stone tool sets, but it is claimed that a technology, a different Nubian Levallois method, was produced only by Homo sapiens.

In a new study published Scientific ReportsResearchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human History have teamed up with international partners to re-examine the fossil and archaeological records of Shukbah Cave. Their findings expand the range of Neanderthals known in the south, and show that our now-depleted relatives used a technology that was once claimed to be the trademark of modern humans. This study, together with a large comparative study examining the collection of stone tools, shows that for the first time, a single human tooth in the area was examined in detail.

Nubian Levallois Kernels

Photographs of Nubian Levallois nuclei associated with Neanderthal fossils. Copyright: UCL, Institute of Archeology and Penn Museum Courtesy, University of Pennsylvania. Credit: Blinkhorn, et al., 2021 / CC BY 4.0

“It’s rare for places where hominid fossils are directly linked to stone tool assemblies – but researching both fossils and tools is crucial to understanding the hominid professions of Shukbah Cave and the larger region,” says former author Royal Jimbob Blinkhorn. With Holloway, University of London and now the Pan-African Evolutionary Research Group (Max Planck Scientific Institute of Human History).

Shukbah Cave, first excavated by Dorothy Garrod in the spring of 1928, states that rich animal bones and Musteri-style stone tools cemented in breccia deposits are often concentrated in well-marked hearths. And a big, unique man at least set his teeth. However, the sample was kept in a special collection for most of the 20th century, prohibiting comparative research using modern methods. The recent re-introduction of the tooth at the Museum of Natural History in London has led to new detailed work on the Shukba collections.

“Professor Garrod immediately saw how different this tooth was. We examined the size, shape, and 3D structure of the tooth, both externally and internally, and compared it with samples from the Holocene and Pleistocene Homo sapiens and Neanderthals. This helped us to clearly characterize the tooth as belonging to a Neanderthal child who was about 9 years old, ”said Clément Zanolli, a doctor at the University of Bordeaux. “Shukba represents the southernmost part of the Neanderthal range known to date,” Zanolli added.

Neanderthal teeth

Photo and 3B reconstruction of the tooth of a 9-year-old Neanderthal child. Copyright: Trustees of the Museum of Natural History, London. Credit: Blinkhorn, et al., 2021 / CC BY 4.0

Although Homo sapiens and Neanderthals share a wide range of stone tool technology, it has been claimed that Nubian Levallois technology has only recently been used by Homo sapiens. The controversy took place in southwest Asia, where Nubian Levallois instruments were used to track human dispersal, especially in the absence of fossils.

“The illustrations of the stone tool collections from Shukbah alluded to the existence of Nubian Levallois technology, so we revisited the collections to further explore. In the end, we found much more than we produced with the Nubian Levallois method, ”said Blinkhorn. “This is the first time they have been in direct contact with Neanderthal fossils, who think we can’t make a simple connection between this technology and Homo sapiens.”

“Southwest Asia is a dynamic region in terms of demographics, behavior and environmental change, and may be particularly important for exploring the interactions between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens,” adds Prof. Simon Blockley of Royal Holloway, University of London. “This study emphasizes the geographical range and behavioral agility of Neanderthal populations, as well as a timely warning that there is no direct link between specific hominins and specific stone tool technologies.”

Professor Chris Stringer of the Museum of Natural History said, “So far we have no direct evidence of the existence of a Neanderthal in Africa.” “But the southern location of Shukbah, just 400km from Cairo, should remind us that they can sometimes be scattered in Africa.”

Reference: “Nubian Levallois Technology Related to the Southern Neanderthals” by James Blinkhorn, Clément Zanolli, Tim Compton, Huw S. Groucutt, Eleanor ML Scerri, Lucile Crété, Chris Stringer, Michael D. Petraglia and Simon Blockley, February 15, 2021, Scientific Reports.
DOI: 10.1038 / s41598-021-82257-6

Researchers involved include Max Planck Institute for Human History, Royal Holloway University of London, University of Bordeaux, Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, University of Malta and the Museum of Natural History, London. This work was supported by the Leverhulme Trust (RPH-2017-087).

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