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The last of the Neandertals?

Byzovaya site. Tusk that was found on the surface of the gravely sediments.
[Photo by John-Inge Svendsen © Science/AAAS]

Among the Ural Mountains in Russia, researchers have discovered hundreds of ancient tools that were made by primitive humans who once lived in the region. The funny thing about these tools, however, is that they appear to be just 33,000 years old—yet they resemble tools made by much earlier cultures, such as Neandertals.

Neandertals were an early species of humans that dominated the Earth during a time known as the Middle Paleolithic Era. But, researchers believe that more modern humans began to replace them starting around 75,000 to 50,000 years ago. If this ancient human toolkit found in the Ural Mountains really was made by Neandertals, then the discovery would mean that these two human species—Neandertals and more modern humans—shared the Earth together for a longer period of time than researchers had thought.

Byzovaya 2007 field operation. Ludovic Slimak is rock knapping.
[Photo by Pavel Pavlov, © Science/AAAS]

However, if the tools were not made by Neandertals, then the discovery means that some groups of more modern humans (from a time known as the Upper Paleolithic Era) continued to make old-fashioned tools with technology from the Middle Paleolithic Era, even after other better methods had been developed.

Since there are no human remains at the site where the tools were found, researchers simply don't know who made them. But Ludovic Slimak and colleagues, who found all 313 of the human artifacts and reported them in the journal Science, do say that this toolkit from Russia is directly comparable to toolkits discovered in Europe that were made by Neandertals.

So, according to them, it is at least possible that this site in the Ural Mountains represents one of the last refuges for Neandertals, before they were all replaced by more modern humans.