NEW YORK -- Were these the last Neanderthals?
Small bands of them took refuge occasionally in a massive cave near the southern tip of Spain. Now a study says charcoal from their fires indicates that Neanderthals were still alive at least 2,000 years later than scientists had firmly established before.
``Maybe these are the last ones," said Clive Finlayson of The Gibraltar Museum, who reported the findings yesterday with colleagues on the website of the journal Nature.
The paper says the charcoal samples from Gorham's Cave in Gibraltar are about 28,000 years old, or possibly just 24,000 years old.
Specialists are divided on how strong a case the paper makes.
Neanderthals were stocky, muscular hunters in Europe and western Asia who appeared more than 200,000 years ago. They died out after anatomically modern humans arrived in Europe about 35,000 to 40,000 years ago and spread west into Neanderthal territory.
Scientists have long been fascinated by the last days of the Neanderthals. Were they doomed because they couldn't compete with the encroaching modern humans for resources, or because they caught new germs from the moderns, or because of climate change? Did the two groups have much contact, and what kind?
They didn't appear to encounter each other in Gorham's Cave. More than 5,000 years separate the last traces of the Neanderthals from the earliest evidence of modern humans, Finlayson said.
Eric Delson of Lehman College in the Bronx and the American Museum of Natural History, who did not participate in the research, said the paper's 28,000-year-old date seems secure but its case for Neanderthal presence after that is shaky.
Even the older date is the only clear evidence of Neanderthals living more recently than 30,000 years ago, he said. But there have been prior assertions of ``the last Neanderthal" that were eventually shot down, he said.