The Neanderthals, our closest prehistoric relatives, dominated Eurasia for the better part of 200,000 years. During that time, they poked their famously large and protruding noses into every corner of Europe, and beyond—south along the Mediterranean from the Strait of Gibraltar to Greece and Iraq, north to Russia, as far west as Britain, and almost to Mongolia in the east. Scientists estimate that even at the height of the Neanderthal occupation of western Europe, their total number probably never exceeded 15,000. Yet they managed to endure, even when a cooling climate turned much of their territory into something like northern Scandinavia today—a frigid, barren tundra, its bleak horizon broken by a few scraggly trees and just enough lichen to keep the reindeer happy.
By the time of the tragedy at El Sidrón, however, the Neanderthals were on the run, seemingly pinned down in Iberia, pockets of central Europe, and along the southern Mediterranean by a deteriorating climate, and further squeezed by the westward spread of anatomically modern humans as they emerged from Africa into the Middle East and beyond. Within another 15,000 years or so, the Neanderthals were gone forever, leaving behind a few bones and a lot of questions. Were they a clever and perseverant breed of survivors, much like us, or a cognitively challenged dead end? What happened during that period, roughly 45,000 to 30,000 years ago, when the Neanderthals shared some parts of the Eurasian landscape with those modern human migrants from Africa? Why did one kind of human being survive, and the other disappear?
On a damp, fog-shrouded morning in September 2007, I stood before the entrance to El Sidrón with Antonio Rosas of the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid, who heads the paleoanthropological investigation. One of his colleagues handed me a flashlight, and I gingerly lowered myself into the black hole. As my eyes adjusted to the interior, I began to make out the fantastic contours of a karstic cave. An underground river had hollowed out a deep vein of sandstone, leaving behind a limestone cavern extending hundreds of yards, with side galleries spidering out to at least 12 entrances. Ten minutes into the cave, I arrived at the Galería del Osario—the "tunnel of bones." Since 2000, some 1,500 bone fragments have been unearthed from this side gallery, representing the remains of at least nine Neanderthals—five young adults, two adolescents, a child of about eight, and a three-year-old toddler. All showed signs of nutritional stress in their teeth—not unusual in young Neanderthals late in their time on Earth. But a deeper desperation is etched in their bones. Rosas picked up a recently unearthed fragment of a skull and another of a long bone of an arm, both with jagged edges.
"These fractures were—clop—made by humans," Rosas said, imitating the blow of a stone tool. "It means these fellows went after the brains and into long bones for the marrow."