Our own species, Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa,
and displaced the Neanderthals after entering Europe about 40,000 years
Researchers from Britain, Gibraltar, Spain and Japan
obtained radiocarbon dates on charcoal from ancient hearths unearthed
deep inside Gorham's Cave on Gibraltar, a mountainous peninsula on the
southern tip of Iberia.
The charcoal comes from ground layers in the cave where
archaeologists previously dug up stone tools of a type made
exclusively by Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis).
The earliest samples of charcoal date to 33,000 years ago,
while the youngest date to 24,000 years ago - much more recent than anyone
could have imagined.
But evidence for a presence 24,000 years ago is limited,
so the researchers can only say with confidence that Neanderthals were in
the cave until 28,000 years ago.
Even so, this date makes the cave the youngest Neanderthal
occupation site known anywhere.
Scientists believe it was a favoured spot where hunting
groups sought refuge from cold weather during the last Ice Age.
The rock shelter is well ventilated and relatively well
illuminated; a high, vaulted roof meant smoke from the Neanderthals'
fires would have risen away from the cave floor, instead of
lingering at ground level and choking the occupants.