New Scientist released an article last week summarizing the work of Finlayson et al in Nature. Their work shows that “the Neanderthals survived in isolated refuges well after the arrival of modern humans in Europe.” Gorham’s Cave, Gibraltar, was systematically – and deeply – excavated by the authors between 1999 and 2005 over an area of 29 square meters. There was a low population density for both Neanderthals and humans during the time that they both lived in the area, and “the late survival of Neanderthals and the arrival of modern humans was a mosaic process in which pioneer groups of moderns and remnant groups of Neanderthals together occupied a highly heterogeneous region for several thousand years”. Up until this paper, the survival of Neanderthals past 35,000 years ago had not been proven. However, this new data proves that Neanderthals used Gorham’s cave until 28,000 years ago. as modern humans began moving into Europe around 32,000 years ago, this makes an overlap of at least 4,000 years.
It doesn’t sound like much, in the larger context of the evolution of the species, but 4,000 is still – obviously – a long time. One can imagine, even with low population densities, many encounters between groups of “moderns” and remnant groups of Neanderthals. This can lead to trying to imagine what the answer would be to one of the “ultimate” questions: what would it be like to meet another sentient species? Whether via sci-fi or prehistory, it makes for some fantastic daydreams.