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Neanderthals cohabited with modern humans in the Negev desert. Source: Kovalenko I / Adobe Stock

Humans and Neanderthals Met and Mated 50,000 Years Ago in Negev Desert

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A recent re-examination of artifacts collected from Israel’s central Negev desert has revealed important details about the development of human culture in the region, according to a new study published in the journal PNAS. Precise archaeological dating techniques of artifacts from the Boker Tachtit site have shifted the known timeline of the arrival of modern humans to about 50,000 years ago. This would make Boker Tachtit the oldest modern human settlement in the Levant, and means that early Homo sapiens occupied the region at the same time as the Neanderthals.

A recent re-examination of artifacts from Israel’s central Negev desert has revealed important details about modern Human-Neanderthal coexistence in the area. Star shows the location of Boker Tachtit. (Weizmann Institute of Science)

A recent re-examination of artifacts from Israel’s central Negev desert has revealed important details about modern Human-Neanderthal coexistence in the area. Star shows the location of Boker Tachtit. ( Weizmann Institute of Science )

Timeline of Neanderthal-Modern Human Transition in the Negev Desert

Throughout Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, modern human culture displaced Neanderthal culture during the transition from the Middle Paleolithic to the Upper Paleolithic. This transition was marked by important technological innovations, including the invention and production of sharp blades for cutting and the use of standardized tools made from antlers and animal bones. The transition occurred between 50,000 and 40,000 years ago, with changes taking place later in Europe and Asia since it took longer for modern humans to arrive there once they’d left their African homeland.

A team of archaeologists from the Weizmann Institute of Science, the Max Planck Society, and the Israel Antiquities Authority were interested in learning more about this transition, as it occurred in the Levant, an area which includes modern-day Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and large parts of Turkey. The team was led by Elisabetta Boaretto, an archaeological dating expert from the Weizmann Institute, and Dr. Omry Barzilai of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who has supervised the excavations at Boker Tachtit for many years.

Studies in the 1980s had suggested a later and slower-than-expected transition. Radiocarbon dating tests seemed to show that humans had first arrived at Boker Tachtit about 47,000 years ago, and that it took another 10,000 or so after that for Upper Paleolithic technology and culture to fully develop at the site.

The new study analyzed tools from the Boker Tachtit site using highly accurate dating technology. Left: A flint point from Boker Tachtit. (Clara Amit / Israel Antiquities Authority) Right: Layer of Early Upper Paleolithic flint tools from Boker Tachtit site. (Prof. Elisabetta Boaretto / Weizmann Institute of Science)

The new study analyzed tools from the Boker Tachtit site using highly accurate dating technology. Left: A flint point from Boker Tachtit. (Clara Amit / Israel Antiquities Authority ) Right: Layer of Early Upper Paleolithic flint tools from Boker Tachtit site. (Prof. Elisabetta Boaretto / Weizmann Institute of Science )

Skeptical Archaeologists and their Dating Techniques

Skeptical of this finding, Boaretto and associates applied the very latest in radiocarbon dating techniques to samples of charcoal taken from Boker Tachtit between 2013 and 2015. They also used a sophisticated and highly accurate dating technology known as optically stimulated luminescence (OSL), which helped them calculate when fine grains of quartz sand had been deposited at the site.

Using these reliable dating techniques, they found that modern humans had actually begun living at Boker Tachtit 50,000 years ago, or three thousand years earlier than previously believed. This was only 10,000 years after the Homo sapiens migration out of Africa began. They also confirmed that the transition from Middle Paleolithic to Upper Paleolithic culture took about 6,000 years to complete.

They also found that the transition at Boker Tachtit could be broken down into two distinct phases: an early Upper Paleolithic phase (50,000 to 47,000 years ago) and a later Upper Paleolithic phase (47,000 to 44,000 years ago). By 44,000 years ago, the toolmaking innovations developed by Upper Paleolithic modern humans had been universally adopted at Boker Tachtit.

Interestingly, the later Upper Paleolithic phase coincided with the early Upper Paleolithic phase in the Mediterranean woodland region of the Levant (Lebanon and Turkey). This discovery showed how modern humans were gradually taking over from the Neanderthals as they continued their march northward and eastward into the depths of Europe and Asia.

One of the most notable consequences of the study was its verification that modern humans and Neanderthals were present in the central Negev desert at the same time. “This goes to show that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens in the Negev coexisted and most likely interacted with one another, resulting in not only genetic interbreeding, as is postulated by the ‘recent African origin’ theory, but also in cultural exchange,” Boaretto and Barzilai theorized in a Weizmann Institute press release announcing their discoveries.

Image of excavations of the Boker Tachtit site in the Negev Desert. (Prof. Elisabetta Boaretto / Weizmann Institute of Science)

Image of excavations of the Boker Tachtit site in the Negev Desert. (Prof. Elisabetta Boaretto / Weizmann Institute of Science )

The Mystery of Neanderthals and Modern Humans in the Negev Desert

A transition from Neanderthal culture to modern human culture occurred between 50,000 and 44,000 years ago in the desert region of the Levant, and later on elsewhere. But the final fate of the now-extinct Neanderthals contains an element of mystery or uncertainty. To what extent were the Neanderthals willing participants in the transition, and to what extent were they its tragic victims?

Some Neanderthal groups may have had friendly relations with the new arrivals. They may have traded with them, or otherwise cooperated for their mutual benefit. Interbreeding practices may have added a voluntary element to the Neanderthals’ eventual extinction. European and Asian genomes contain about two percent Neanderthal DNA , showing that some merging did occur between the two cultures.

But other Neanderthal groups may have come into conflict with the new arrivals, as each side struggled to secure access to scarce resources. Many Neanderthals may have been killed during these conflicts, or driven away to less hospitable lands where they eventually died out.

In still other instances, Neanderthals and modern humans may have simply avoided each other, content to remain separate as long as nature was productive enough to provide for all. This practice couldn’t continue forever. Nevertheless, peaceful co-existence would have been a reasonable alternative to constant conflict, until the point that population pressure made this unsustainable.

As of now, no sign of conflict or warfare between Neanderthals and modern humans has been found in the vicinity of the Boker Tachtit site in Israel. This suggests that the initial interactions between them were either friendly or indifferent. Of course, future discoveries may contradict this conclusion.

The real story what happened between Neanderthals and modern humans, in the ancient Levant and beyond, is undoubtedly quite complex. Archaeologists and anthropologists will continue to seek the truth, with every new find adding at least a few small pieces to the immense puzzle of prehistory.

Top image: Neanderthals cohabited with modern humans in the Negev desert. Source: Kovalenko I / Adobe Stock

By Nathan Falde

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