The Caveman Convention

IT'S NOT AS IF ANTHROPOLOGISTS haven't had ample time to fathom the mysteries of the Neanderthals. A Neanderthal skull was discovered in a limestone grotto in Germany way back in 1856 -- the first fossil of an extinct human ancestor ever identified. Since then, researchers have deduced that Neanderthals lived from about 100,000 until 35,000 years ago, spreading from the Near East to central Asia and the Atlantic shores of Spain. Anatomically, they were nearly identical to today's Homo sapiens, except for their linebackerlike build, lack of a chin and brow ridges as prominent as eaves. Scientists also know that Neanderthals were not the brutes of myth. They buried their dead with care and looked after the sick and the lame. But there's lots more that anthropologists don't know, such as how Neanderthals interacted with the more modern humans, arrivistes known as Cro-Magnons, with whom they shared the Near East and Europe for millennia. Did they interbreed? Do battle? Flee one another?

At least part of the answer has now come from a complex of rock shelters and caves found in the 1950s near Auxerre, France. The stone and bone tools found there, as well as pierced or grooved animal teeth and ivory rings used as jewelry, resembled those of Cro-Magnons. But no one knew for sure who lived there, 34,000 years ago. No one, that is, until anatomist Fred Spoor of University College, London, looked for a trait he had discovered was unique to Neanderthals: oddly shaped bones of the inner ear. "We CAT-scanned the specimens," says Spoor, coauthor of a paper describing the findings in the journal Nature this week, "and confirmed that the remains at Arcy-sur-Cure are absolutely Neanderthal."

What were Europe's last Neanderthals, people on the verge of extinction, doing with tools and jewelry more typical of Cro-Magnons? At caves in Israel anthropologists have also found Neanderthal bones with stone tools like those of the more modern sapiens. But these sites are 60,000 and 92,000 years old, and scientists figured that sapiens simply hadn't had time to develop stone technology more advanced than Neanderthals'. Europe was supposed to tell a different story, of cave-painting, figurine-making Cro-Magnons living in cultural isolation. But the Arcy-sur-Cure site suggests otherwise. Archeologist Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Muse de l'Homme in Paris suspects that Neanderthals were not imitating Cro-Magnon artisans but actively trading with them. The possibility of two very different kinds of humans interacting to obtain the basic tools of life and the accouterments of culture is something "archeologists had been talking about in private," says Spoor, "but now it's out in the open."

These interactions had their limits, it seems -- there was no intermarriage. The absence of Neanderthal features in Cro-Magnons indicates that "something kept the two biologically separate," says Spoor. Neanderthals died out even though, as the Arcy-sur-Cure remains show, they had the same survival tools as the Cro-Magnons. Evidently, that wasn't enough.