The Japan Times, September 1, 1998
By ROBIN McKIE
Did Neanderthals cave in or just get outnumbered?
LONDON - In a dimly lit recess of the Gilbraltar Museum, a strange skull, with a beetle brow and low forehead, glowers.
Few tourists take notice, although this assemblage of bone fragments has great importance. This is the Forbes skull, the focus last weekend of a conference aimed at solving one of science's greatest mysteries: the fate of the Neanderthals and the role of Homo sapiens in their demise 30,000 years ago.
Blasted from Forbes quarry in Gibraltar 150 years ago, the young woman's skull was the first piece of Neanderthal anatomy to be unearthed, although its discoverers did not realize it belonged to a separate human species.
"The Forbes skull was both the first and the last Neanderthal," said professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, London. "It was the first Neanderthal to be discovered, although the second -dug up in Germany's Neander Valley in 1856 - got the attention. And it is one of the last, because the species found its final refuge down here in southern Spain."
Why the Neanderthals died out was the question dominating the conference, "The First Europeans: Gibraltar '98." Having resolved one research battle - by showing that modern humans do not seem to be the immediate genetic descendants of Neanderthals - paleontologists are now arguing about what apparently killed them off.
"Modern humans must have possessed something the Neanderthals lacked," said conference organizer Clive Finlayson, of the Gibraltar Museum. "Otherwise we would not have flourished in Europe while they died out. Whatever quality it was, it gave us control of the Earth."
Some scientists say little divided Homo sapiens from its cousin, the Neanderthal. Neanderthals were bigger and sturdier than us, but were not the doltish cavemen shown in cartoons, nor were humans really that smart.
"There is an idea that modern humans emerged out of Africa like the chosen people," said Joao Zilhao of the Instituto Nacional de Arqueologia, Lisbon. "Their arrival is portrayed almost as a biblical event, these golden ones replacing debased Europeans, the Neanderthals. This is nonsense."
Zilhao said most evidence for the supposed superiority of Homo sapiens - cave paintings, elegant bone tools and sophisticated necklaces and ornaments - has been poorly dated.
The appearance of these works did not coincide with modern humans' arrival in Europe, he argued. Neanderthals were making them before Homo sapiens arrived. "There was virtually no intellectual difference between us and them. We probably bred slightly more quickly and simply outnumbered them."
But this idea was lambasted by Cambridge University's Paul Mellars. "Dr. Zilhao is a great scientist, but his dating is bollocks. It is no coincidence that a new sophistication in art and toolmaking appears just as modern humans arrive, and that is because we were responsible. We were smarter."
Mellars and his supporters accuse their opponents of contaminating fossil hunting with political correctness. "They cannot admit that one human species could be superior to another," he added. "But there must be a real difference; we did not take over Europe by luck."
This view was backed by Clive Gamble of Southampton University. "When you look at the way Neanderthals shared things - like stone tools - you see very little geographical variation; they got all their materials locally.
"By comparison, modern humans shared objects with other tribes, even though they were often far apart, sometimes hundreds of miles. We networked well, and when times got hard we had kith and kin to run to. The Neanderthals did not.
"It is like remembering aunties and cousins. We send Christmas cards, but the Neanderthals did not. That doomed them."
The end came quickly for the Neanderthals. Modern humans - the Cro-Magnons - poured across Europe from the Levant and quickly reached the Bay of Biscay. To the north was wasteland and glaciers. So the Neanderthals headed south, and by 35,000 years ago had taken their last refuge in Spain.
Modern humans followed them around both coastlines until the Neanderthals were confined to Gibraltar and the Costa del Sol. "It was not necessarily a violent takeover, but you can bet there was the odd bit of bloodshed," said Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Musée de l'Homme, Paris.
"Neanderthals liked to move around, but returned to favorite caves when times got hard. Slowly groups would find that when they went back to those caves they had been taken over by tribes of Homo sapiens. They ran out of places to hide."
The last Neanderthal died out about 30,000 years ago. Scientists cannot date the Forbes skull, as they do not know the rock layer in which it was found. It is certainly one of the last Neanderthals.
Its stay in its homeland will be short. It is on loan from London's Natural History Museum and will be returned there, while scientists continue to argue over the cause of its demise.
BONN University of Munich researcher Matthias Krings in July last year holds parts of the skull of a Neanderthal found in 1857 in the Neander Valley. A Munich team analyzed mitochondrial DNA from the skeleton and concluded Neanderthals were not the ancestors of modern Europeans, but debate continues on why they disappeared and whether they may have interbred with modern humans. AP PHOTO