Prehistoric shock: Is THIS the real reason Neanderthals became extinct?

Professor Clive Finlayson is the director of the Gibraltar Museum, located near Gorham’s Cave, which is filled with a treasure trove of Neanderthal fossils and artefacts, and he has devoted his life to studying mankind’s cousins, the subject of a recent BBC documentary for which he was interviewed. The Neanderthals – scientific name Homo Neanderthalensis – lived across Europe and southwest and central Asia from about 400,000 years ago to 40,000 years ago. Gorham’s Cave is one of the last known habitations of the Neanderthals in Europe, and together with Vanguard Cave, Hyaena Cave and Bennett’s Cave, forms Gorham’s Cave complex, which is now designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

You’ve got small populations; climate impacts I think were very substantial and these people happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time

Professor Clive Finlayson

Speaking during a break from the Gibraltar Literary Festival, where he presented his latest book, The Smart Neanderthal, Prof Finlayson told the scientific community was increasingly accepting them as members of the human “family”, with many preconceptions once held to be facts now proving to be outdated and wrong.

Not least of these is the idea that the Neanderthals were the victims of genocide carried out by modern humans migrating out of Africa.

Prof Finlayson said: “A lot of modern human populations also went extinct at that time.

“You’ve got small populations; climate impacts I think were very substantial and these people happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Neanderthal Gibraltar Gorham's Cave

Neanderthals became extinct roughly 40,000 years ago (Image: GETTY)

“They happened to be in Eurasia at the height of the Ice Age, and we think that modern humans, who were probably in Africa, moved in and took their space.

“Whereas the original view is that modern humans came out of Africa and wiped the Neanderthals out, we see it more as filling a vacuum left as a result of an extinction caused by climate-induced factors over a protracted period.

“The one example I gave is if you understand modern humans, they were in the Middle East 100,000 years ago. They get to Australia by 60,000 years ago – but Europe, around the corner, they don’t get to until 45,000 years ago.

“I think it’s because Neanderthals are there and they are probably holding them back.

READ MORE: Was Australia discovered by a tribe of extinct Siberian cave dwellers?


A model of a Neanderthal man (Image: GETTY)

“It’s a twist in the story – maybe these people are not that dumb, they are on home territory, they are good at what they do, and it’s gradually as they start to shrink in numbers for other reasons that we are filling up the space.”

The BBC documentary for which Prof Finlayson was interviewed, Neanderthals – Meet Your Ancestors, saw Andy Serkis – famous for his portrayal of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings – transformed into a Neanderthal man with the help of cutting edge motion capture techniques.

Prof Finlayson said: “I was pleased with the results but I still felt it tried to find a middle ground.”

As such, he felt the programme tended to overemphasise the limitations of Neanderthals in comparison with Homo Sapiens, or modern man.

Andy Serkis

Andy Serkis in a scene from the documentary (Image: BBC)


Motion capture techniques transformed Andy Serkis into a Neanderthal (Image: GETTY)

“There is a controversy about whether humans are cognitively superior to Neanderthals in every way.

“What these caves have been showing is two things which are changing with work on Neanderthals.

“One is the work on DNA – we now have a complete Neanderthal genome.

“And the other is understanding their behavioural capabilities.


Neanderthal and modern human skeletons compared (Image: GETTY)

“And what we’ve shown over the years is that they were exploiting food resources. We’ve found evidence of them ingesting not just shellfish but seals butchered, tuna, birds – there’s 161 species of bird species we’ve now identified as fossils in those first two caves.

“We’ve shown that they were catching birds for food, they were roasting pigeons and also catching things like golden eagle.

“We think the feathers were intended as jewellery – we’ve even found an engraving which some people have called art.”

“A question put to me recently was were Neanderthals as intelligent as us – and my point was we’d have to start defining what intelligences means.

A Neanderthal skull

A Neanderthal skull (Image: GETTY)

Gorham's Cave complex

Gorham’s Cave complex is in Gibraltar (Image: Wikipedia)

“But what I can tell you is that all these features of behaviour which were the hallmark of modern humans under evolution were found in Neanderthals.

“So from our point of view, Neanderthals were as human as anyone else.

“They may have had differences which we can attribute to cultural differences.

“This idea of modern humans painting caves – well there are many caves in different parts of the world outside France where modern humans did not paint walls.


A “Neanderthal” on the tube from the BBC documentary (Image: BBC)

“So is that a mark of being modern?

“Neanderthals, we now know, engraved, there was some controversial discussion as to whether that’s on the fringe of art.

“You either change your definition of what it means to be human, or you bring them into the family.”

To illustrate his point, Prof Finlayson cited the fact that research has indicated between one and four percent of all non-subsaharan African genomes derive from Neanderthals (including his own).

CGI BBC Neanderthal

CGI footage from the BBC documentary (Image: BBC)

He added: “Most people of Eurasian origin carry Neanderthal genes. They couldn’t have seen each other as that different if they were fully interbreeding.

“For us all to carry Neanderthal genes, it couldn’t have been a one-off event – it must have been a regular thing.

“So they didn’t see themselves as that different.”

Technological breakthroughs may one day offer the possibility of bringing the species back using sophisticated cloning methods – but Prof Finlayson does not believe that would be a good move.

Cave paintings

Neanderthal cave paintings (Image: GETTY)

During the course of the BBC documentary, Prof Finlayson is asked whether he would have liked to meet a Neanderthal.

He said: “My first reaction was yes of course I’d love to but then I paused and I said no.

“I said no because if our recent history of the last few hundred years of contact with aboriginal peoples is anything to go by, we would end up putting them in reserves and in cages or doing something to them so it’s probably best not to meet them.”

Prof Finlayson’s book, The Smart Neanderthal, is published by Oxford University Press. To buy a copy click here

Clive FinlaysonProfessor Clive Finlayson [Gibraltar Museum ]

Professor Clive Finlayson on Gorham’s Cave Complex:

“If you look at the list of world heritage sites, which is now well over 1,000 sites in the world, there are only two representing Neanderthals – the other is Mount Carmel in Israel, which was classified in 2012, and we were classified in 2016.

“Clearly part of that is because there are many more castles and cathedrals than Neanderthal sites.

“But what it does show is the important of this place in terms of our understanding and potential future research.

“Many, many of the caves which were Neanderthal were excavated in the early 20th century and there’s nothing left.

“So to have these two gems, there is so much potential for future research which is what we are doing.

“The anecdote is when UNESCO were discussing the award they were concerned what would happen if scientists kept digging.

“To convince them I did a quick sum. I said well look, if we calculate what there is left there now in terms of volume of material that we know of – there may be more – and the rate at which we excavate it, it would take 800 years.

“We have seen for a long time that we will not see the end of the project – the project will continue and it’s nice to see that with UNESCO.

“So that’s the level of importance. There’s nothing in Europe, or nothing to do with Neanderthals, other than possibly the caves in Israel, which has so much, not just actual information already published, but potential for more in the future.”