Spanish and German experts are working together on the project / SUR

Searching for the demise of the Neanderthals

A cave located in Alcaucín could provide key information about the disappearance of this extinct human species

FRANCISCO GUTIÉRREZ

Boquete de Zafarraya cave in Alcaucín, which was discovered by Cecilio Barroso in 1981, could hold the key to the disappearance of the Neanderthals and help scientists to understand their relationship with the modern humans, Homo sapiens, who ended up taking their place.

The Neanderthals inhabited Europe, the Near East, Middle East and central Asia between 230,000 and 40,000 years ago. The reason they became extinct is shrouded in mystery but experts believe it is linked in some way to the emergence of modern man.

So far, the cave has yielded a few fossilised remains, a complete jawbone and a fragment of femur, which are now on display at the Museum of Malaga.

New DNA analysing techniques have opened up new avenues for research in this field: it is now possible to extract samples of human origin from sediments taken from the cave, without the need for organic remains being present.

This is what researchers from Germany's Max Planck Institute were doing over Easter, in collaboration with Spanish experts.

300 samples

About 300 samples of sediment from the cave were taken to Germany for analysis, because the method of extracting DNA from ancient sediments is an extremely new technique which has been developed by the German laboratory.

"It is a very unusual methodology which does not need human remains in order to sequence DNA; it is obtained from the sediments, from remains which have fallen in the past and, curiously, seem more stable over time than organic remains," explained Enrique Viguera, a professor of Genetics at Malaga university.

The genetic study being carried out in Germany will provide a profile of the inhabitants of the cave through systematic study of the past 60,000 years.

"If they show that there were remains from the Neanderthals and modern humans at the same time, we will have a clue as to what happened to the Neanderthals and why they disappeared," he said.

The Boquete de Zafarraya cave is of particular interest to anthropologists and historians because only a very few sites hold remains from Neanderthal times. All trace of them was lost in other parts of Europe 40,000 years ago, but they appear to have taken refuge in southern Spain, Italy and Gibraltar. It is at that time that they may have come into contact with Homo sapiens.

Some of the researchers in the save. / SUR

A base for hunting

The Neanderthals are not thought to have used this cave in the Sierra de Alhama as a place to live, but as an occasional base for hunting, at least between 30,000 and 45,000 years ago.

Scientists are excited at the possibility that there was some type of relationship between these two hominids, because it would indicate why the Neanderthals vanished. Some experts say that, as around three per cent of the non-African human genome comes from the ancient Neanderthals, that in itself is proof that there was cross-breeding between the two.

However, the fact that evidence of modern humans began to appear at the same time that all traces of the Neanderthals were lost has been interpreted in different ways.

Some anthropologists suspect that the Neanderthals were exterminated by the Homo sapiens, while others are more drawn to the theory that they became naturally extinct through the pernicious effects of increasing cross-breeding.