The Middle Paleolithic was a part of the Stone Age, and it spanned from 300,000 to 30,000 years ago. It is widely acknowledged that during this time, anatomically modern humans started to move out of Africa and assimilate coeval Eurasian populations, including Neanderthals, through interbreeding. According to the new research, this process was not a straightforward, smooth one - instead, it seems to have been punctuated, with different evolutionary patterns in different geographical regions. In 2010, the team published evidence from the site of Cueva Antón in Spain that provided unambiguous evidence for symbolism among Neanderthals. Putting that evidence in context and using the latest radiometric techniques to date the site, the researchers show Cueva Antón is the most recent known Neanderthal site.
Interior view of the cave and excavation trench as of the end of the 2012 field season. Credit: João Zilhão
"We believe that the stop-and-go, punctuated, uneven mechanism we propose must have been the rule in human evolution, which helps explaining why Paleolithic material culture tends to form patterns of geographically extensive similarity while Paleolithic genomes tend to show complex ancestry patchworks," commented Dr. Zilhão. The key to understanding this pattern, says Dr. Zilhão, lies in discovering and analyzing new sites, not in revisiting old ones. Although finding and excavating new sites with the latest techniques is time-consuming, he believes it is the approach that pays off. "There is still a lot we do not know about human evolution and, especially, about the Neanderthals," said Dr. Zilhão. "Our textbook ideas about Neanderthals and modern humans have been mostly derived from finds in France, Germany and Central Europe, but during the Ice Ages these were peripheral areas: probably as much as half of the Paleolithic people who ever lived in Europe were Iberians. Ongoing research has begun to bear fruit, and I have no doubt that there is more to come.