Radiometric Dates for Neanderthals in the Levantine

Neanderthals are one of the best known species in the human lineage. Researchers have been investigating the biological and behavioral characteristics of Homo neanderthalensis for nearly 150 years, beginning with its discovery in the mid 1800s. Since then, more than 400 fossil remains of Neanderthals have been recovered.

The stone tools produced by Neanderthals are described as the Mousterian Industry or the Middle Palaeolithic. These lithic assemblages are characterized by Mode 3 technology, or the careful preparation of core surfaces so that large, symmetrical flakes could be produced. These flakes were sometimes shaped into specific forms for cutting, scraping, and other actions on meat, hide, and vegetal matter. Some of these flakes were also hafted onto spear tips for hunting.

Full Homo neanderthalensis morphological traits are characteristic of specimens in Europe and Asia 135 ka, but specimens dating back to 350 ka exhibit some of the traits characteristics of later Neanderthals. The last Neanderthals lived in Western Europe about 30 ka. Researchers believe that they were displaced and forced into extinction by a number of factors including climate change and competition with new human migrants. Neanderthals and humans may have coexisted in the Levant region for thousands of years, however.

Tabun Cave Provides an Important context for Dating Neanderthal Occupation in West Asia

Tabun Cave is located on Mt. Carmel, Israel, where numerous caves yielding Neanderthal fossils and archaeological remains have been investigated. Tabun Cave preserves a long archaeological sequence that documents technological change from Acheulean times through to the Upper Mousterian and has long been used as a point of reference for relative dating of Levantine palaeolithic sites. The Levant is an important geographical area because it represents the junction of Africa, Asia, and Europe.

The archaeological sequence from top to bottom, its technological characteristics, and a summary of some recent absolute dating analyses from Tabun Cave are summarized here:

Tabun B -Middle Palaeolithic, Upper Mousterian, Broad Levallois points and narrow flakes obtained by unidirectional removal, U-series/ESR date: 104 (+33-18) thousand years ago (ka), Neanderthal Specimen C1 recovered from this unit

Tabun C -Middle Palaeolithic, Lower Levalloiso-Mousterian, Oval shaped radial Levallois flakes, no points, U-series/ESR date: upper levels 135 (+60-30) ky, lower levels 222±27 ka , 196±21 ka, TL date: 165±16 ka

Tabun D -Middle Palaeolithic, Lower Levalloiso-Mousterian, Prismatic ‘Amudian’ blades, scrapers, elongated unidirectional Levallois points, U-series/ESR date: 143(+41-28) ka, TL date: 256±26 ka

Tabun E -Lower Palaeolithic, Acheulo-Yabrudian, Thick ‘Yabrudian’ scrapers common, some levels have handaxes and blades, U-series/ESR date: 208(+102-144) ka, TL dates: 264±28 ka, 324±31 ka, 302±27 ka

Tabun F -Lower Palaeolithic, Late Acheulean

Tabun G -Lower Palaeolithic,Tayacian

Dating the Appearance of the Middle Palaeolithic and Neanderthal Occupation in the Levant

Tabun Cave has the potential to inform palaeoanthropologists of the timing for the appearance of the Middle Palaeolithic in the Levant. Tabun D represents the earliest Middle Palaeolithic occupation at Tabun, and unfortunately, absolute dates for Tabun D are inconsistent.

In 2000, Grün and Stringer reported an early uptake (EU) U-series date of 133±13 ka, a linear uptake (LU) U-series date of 203±26 ka, and a combined US/ESR date of 143 (+41-28) ka.

Thermoluminescence dates of burnt flints from Tabun are 256±26 ka; more than a one hundred thousand year discrepancy with the above U-series dates. Some researchers argue that other Levantine sites that document the Lower to Middle Paleolithic boundary seem to converge at an age of roughly 215±30 ka.

Dating the end of the Middle Palaeolithic and the extinction of Neanderthals in the Levant

The upper limit of the Middle Paleolithic occupation of Tabun Cave is even more controversial. The Neanderthal hominid C1 was recovered near the top of the Tabun sequence, either layer B or C. U-series dates conducted in the late 90s by Schwarz and others gave a date of 34±5 ka for the C1 mandible and 33±4 ka for the C1 femur. This date has been questioned. If it were correct, it would mean that the specimen is one of the youngest Neanderthals known and that Neanderthals inhabited the Levant until 30 ka, opposed to the prevalent view that Neanderthals became restricted to pockets of Western Europe at the end of their existence before going extinct about 30 ka.

In contrast to Schwarz’s analysis, however, Grun and Stringer report LU U-series dates of faunal samples from Layer B that give an estimate 122±16 ka for the C1 skeleton.

There is Lots of Potential for Further Research on the Origins and Evolution of Neanderthals

Despite being the most well known species of hominin to date, there are still many questions about the detailed timeline of Neanderthal occupation in West Asia. The archaeology of Tabun Cave and the Levantine in general harbors great potential for understanding the origins and extinction of Neanderthals as absolute dating techniques are refined.

A number of questions remain: how are the Mousterian-using Neanderthals of Tabun Cave related to the Lower Palaeolithic (Acheulean) toolmakers of earlier occupations? What is the relationship between the biological changes that characterize the appearance of Neanderthals and the technological changes that characterize the appearance of Middle Palaeolithic industries? How old is the first Middle Palaeolithic industry at Tabun Cave? How old is the last Middle Palaeolithic industry and the C1 Neanderthal specimen at Tabun?