Britain’s last Neanderthals were more sophisticated than we thought

June 23, 2008

An archaeological excavation at a site near Pulborough, West Sussex, has thrown remarkable new light on the life of northern Europe’s last Neanderthals. It provides a snapshot of a thriving, developing population – rather than communities on the verge of extinction.

“The tools we’ve found at the site are technologically advanced and potentially older than tools in Britain belonging to our own species, Homo sapiens,” says Dr Matthew Pope of Archaeology South East based at the UCL Institute of Archaeology. “It’s exciting to think that there’s a real possibility these were left by some of the last Neanderthal hunting groups to occupy northern Europe. The impression they give is of a population in complete command of both landscape and natural raw materials with a flourishing technology - not a people on the edge of extinction.”

The team, led by Dr Pope and funded by English Heritage, is undertaking the first modern, scientific investigation of the site since its original discovery in 1900. During the construction of a monumental house known as ‘Beedings’ some 2,300 perfectly preserved stone tools were removed from fissures encountered in the foundation trenches.

Only recently were the tools recognised for their importance. Research by Roger Jacobi of the Leverhulme-funded Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) Project showed conclusively that the Beedings material has strong affinities with other tools from northern Europe dating back to between 35,000 and 42,000 years ago. The collection of tools from Beedings is more diverse and extensive than any other found in the region and therefore offers the best insight into the technologically advanced cultures which occupied Northern Europe before the accepted appearance of our own species.

“Dr Jacobi’s work showed the clear importance of the site,” says Dr Pope. “The exceptional collection of tools appears to represent the sophisticated hunting kit of Neanderthal populations which were only a few millennia from complete disappearance in the region. Unlike earlier, more typical Neanderthal tools these were made with long, straight blades - blades which were then turned into a variety of bone and hide processing implements, as well as lethal spear points.

“There were some questions about the validity of the earlier find, but our excavations have proved beyond doubt that the material discovered here was genuine and originated from fissures within the local sandstone. We also discovered older, more typical Neanderthal tools, deeper in the fissure. Clearly, Neanderthal hunters were drawn to the hill over a long period time, presumably for excellent views of the game-herds grazing on the plains below the ridge.”

The excavations suggest the site may not be unique. Similar sites with comparable fissure systems are thought to exist across south east England. The project now aims to prospect more widely across the region for similar sites.

Barney Sloane, Head of Historic Environment Commissions at English Heritage, said: “Sites such as this are extremely rare and a relatively little considered archaeological resource. Their remains sit at a key watershed in the evolutionary history of northern Europe. The tools at Beedings could equally be the signature of pioneer populations of modern humans, or traces of the last Neanderthal hunting groups to occupy the region. This study offers a rare chance to answer some crucial questions about just how technologically advanced Neanderthals were, and how they compare with our own species.”

Source: University College London - UCL

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5 / 5 (3) Jun 23, 2008
Neanderthals making tools of a new model? That would be big news. As far as I know, Neanderthals are said up to now to have produced always the same models of tools, and technological advances were to be a hallmark of Sapiens (or Sapiens Sapiens depending on your beliefs).


What evidence shall tell us that these tools were produced by late Neanderthals, and not by early Sapiens?

Just another comment... Several thousand years is a very long time, and several thousand years before extinction is not the edge of extinction. Australian animal species took just one or two centuries to disappear, and were perfectly sound before.
4.7 / 5 (3) Jun 23, 2008
I think the way we classify prehistoric people is out of touch with reality. We put them in boxes and are surprised whenever we find something outside of that box. There was never a moment in time that marked any technological advance, but rather long epochs that saw technology rise and fall as tribes made chance discoveries, had brilliant individuals, and other random events. Some knowledge and tecnology was probably stolen and squandered, and much was forgotten only to be rediscovered by others. A thousand years is a long time for a lot of neanderthals to make a lot of andvances. I prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt, after all being endowed with a mind similar to ours. And we are supreme beings! right?
not rated yet Jun 23, 2008
It would be nice if the results were compared to the Topper site in the US; considering the date range up to 50,000 yrs. Perhaps the NW passage theory should also include the NE passage.
not rated yet Jun 25, 2008
A thousand years is a long time for a lot of neanderthals to make a lot of andvances.

I agree with your assessment. just look at what man has done in the last 200 years, or even the last 50...

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