Who are you calling a caveman? Israeli study finds Neanderthals had versatile habitats
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Who are you calling a caveman? Israeli study finds Neanderthals had versatile habitats

Analysis of remains from 60,000 years ago found at Ein Qashish questions a bedrock narrative of humanity’s ancestors

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

The lower limbs of a Neanderthal exposed at the open-air site of Ein Qashish, on the banks of the Kishon River in northern Israel (Erella Hovers, courtesy of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
The lower limbs of a Neanderthal exposed at the open-air site of Ein Qashish, on the banks of the Kishon River in northern Israel (Erella Hovers, courtesy of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

An Israeli-led study of the skeletal remains of two humans from the late Middle Paleolithic period, between 70,000 and 60,000 years ago, has yielded surprising findings. In analyzing the first Neanderthal remains found outside caves in the Levant, researchers have found Neanderthals were not merely “cavemen,” but much more flexible in their living habits than commonly held.

As part of major road construction, archaeologists were called in by road company Derekh Eretz Inc. to survey the northern Israel site of Ein Qashish, situated on the banks of the Kishon River. The findings of their study — published Wednesday in the journal Nature Scientific Reports — indicate that 60,000 years ago, as modern humans reached the region, Neanderthals in the Levant inhabited both caves and open landscapes.

The Levant, or Near East, is to date the only known region where the fossil record shows the two populations — Neanderthals and Homo sapiens– existed simultaneously during the Middle Paleolithic era. Unlike earlier studies, however, this survey includes fossils of both types of human individuals — not only from caves, but also from open-air sites.

“The discovery of Neanderthals at open-air sites during the late MP reinforces the view that Neanderthals were a resilient population in the Levant shortly before Upper Palaeolithic Homo sapiens populated the region,” the article stated.

An aerial view of Ein Qashsish in northern Israel. (Erella Hovers, courtesy of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
An aerial view of Ein Qashsish in northern Israel. (Erella Hovers, courtesy of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

“The new discovery of Neanderthal remains at the late MP open-air site of Ein Qashish provides a window into the settlement and mobility patterns of the Neanderthals of northern Israel,” it continued.

The study was led by Dr. Ella Been from the Ono Academic College, Prof. Erella Hovers from the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Dr. Omry Barzilai from the Israel Antiquities Authority, with the assistance of Dr. Ravid Ekshtain (the Hebrew University of Jerusalem) and Dr. Ariel Malinsky-Buller (the Museum for Human Behavioral Evolution, Monrepos, Germany).

The Neanderthal tooth found at ‘Ein Qashish, on the banks of the Qishon stream in northern Israel. (Erella Hovers, courtesy of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
The Neanderthal tooth found at Ein Qashish, on the banks of the Kishon River in northern Israel. (Erella Hovers, courtesy of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

Aided by advanced imaging and statistical techniques, the archaeologists used a single upper molar tooth to represent the remains of one Neanderthal. The second Neanderthal was represented by the lower limbs of an individual who suffered from injuries that likely caused limping. The remains were found within a rich archaeological level containing flint tools, animal bones, and some unusual finds for the period, such as a marine shell, pigments and an antler of a deer, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority.

A spear point made from flint found at Ein Qashsish in northern Israel. (Erella Hovers, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)
A spear point made from flint found at Ein Qashsish in northern Israel. (Erella Hovers, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

״A number of researchers have recently claimed that Neanderthals were adapted to life in rugged mountainous terrains whereas modern humans adapted better to flat and open landscapes. The finds from Ein Qashish show that Neanderthals inhabited sites in diverse topographic and ecological contexts,” the IAA said in a press release.

The findings of the study go a long way toward explaining the disappearance of the Neanderthals, according to the IAA.

Whereas traditional explanations hypothesize that Neanderthals in the Near East were unable to adapt to an increasingly dry climate, the Ein Qashish finds indicate that they were adapted to open-air living.

“Our study suggests that Neanderthals were a resilient population that successfully existed in the north of Israel at the time that modern humans arrived from Africa some 60,000 years ago.”

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