Neanderthal finds are like prehistoric buses. You wait for tens of thousands of years, and then two important revelations come along together.
French and Belgian archaeologists have found proof that Neanderthals - mankind's closest relatives - were living in near-tropical conditions, hunting rhinoceros and elephant, close to what is now France's Channel coast 125,000 years ago.
No traces of Neanderthal activity have previously been found in north-west Europe during this period - a 15,000-year interval between two ice ages.
Historians previously thought that Neanderthals, who thrived in cold conditions, had failed to adapt to the warmer weather and had retreated to the east or to the north. The new site at Caours, near Abbeville, close to the mouth of the river Somme, proves that this was not so.
A two-year dig by two French government research bodies has uncovered evidence of a Neanderthal "butcher's shop" on an ancient riverbank to which animals as large as rhinoceros, elephant and aurochs, the forerunner of the cow, were dragged. The Neanderthals - known to be squat, powerful people, who had language and fire and buried their dead - sliced up the animals with flint tools for their meat and pounded their bones for their marrow.
Earlier this month, British archaeologists reported that they had found evidence that a few members of the species (Homo neanderthalis) may have survived in caves in Gibraltar much later than was previously thought - until about 28,000 years ago, or maybe even 24,000 years ago. Previously, it was thought that they vanished about 30,000 years ago.
Both finds are potentially vital new pieces in the frustratingly incomplete jigsaw of modern understanding of our tough and resourceful, near-human, European predecessors. The problem is that the two discoveries seem to be part of different jigsaw puzzles.
Jean-Luc Locht, a Belgian expert in prehistory at the French government's archaeological service, was a researcher at Caours. "This is a very important site, a unique site," he said. "It proves that Neanderthals thrived in a warm north-west Europe and hunted animals like the rhinoceros and the aurochs, just as they previously, and later, hunted ice-age species like the mammoth and the reindeer.
"If we have lost the record of them elsewhere in this period, it must be because the erosive action of the last ice age wiped the record clean."
No Neanderthal remains have been found so far on the new site on the Somme, or among the new finds in Gibraltar. In both cases, their presence at a particular (and highly significant) period has been revealed by other discoveries: flint tools in the case of Gibraltar; a treasure trove of flint tools and fossilised animal bones in the case of the Somme.
The animal bones, found in a geological layer laid down about 125,000 years ago, show signs of having been sawn through, crushed or stripped of their meat by flint tools. The animal species identified include a small fragment of elephant bone, several rhinoceros teeth, and many remnants of aurochs, wild boar and several kinds of deer.
The dig, which will continue next summer, has also unearthed flint scraping or cutting tools and a flint pounding implement, used for crushing bones or splitting other pieces of flint.
Patrick Auguste, one of the other principal researchers on the site, an expert on archaeozoology, or prehistoric animals, at the French national research body, the CNRS, said: "You have to wonder at the artistry, the exceptional skill, with which the flint tools have been shaped. The Neanderthals may have had thicker fingers than us, but they were certainly not clumsy."
The back-to-back French and British announcements create a prehistorical conundrum. The Gibraltar discovery suggests that Neanderthals survived for as long as 8,000 years after a two-legged rival first appeared in Europe out of Africa - Homo sapiens sapiens, or mankind. An 8,000-year period of Neanderthal/ sapiens cohabitation suggests that mankind was not responsible for wiping out the Neanderthals.
The other possible explanation is that Neanderthals were victims of global warming, succumbing to abrupt variations in climate well before the end of the last Ice Age, about 15,000 years ago.
But the new find in the Somme suggests that Neanderthals were able to survive the ending of an earlier ice age.
In which case, the finger of "blame" for the demise of the Neanderthals after thriving in Europe for 270,000 years points, once again, at Homo sapiens.Reuse content