New evidence suggests that Neanderthals frequently visited La Cotte de St Brelade, a cave on Jersey island, the largest island in the English Channel. It was apparently in Neanderthal use for about 180,000 years.
Scientists were previously blindered from noticing the Neanderthal evidence by their selective focus on the abundant mammoth remains found in the cave. But when researchers took another look at stone artifacts gathered from the cave in the 70's, they got a broader picture of how the site was used. Apparently, Neanderthals found the cave extremely significant.
"La Cotte seems to have been a special place for Neanderthals," says Andy Shaw, an archaeologist associated with the University of Southampton. "They kept making deliberate journeys to reach the site over many, many generations... We can use the stone tools they left behind to map how they were moving through landscapes, which are now beneath the English Channel."
180,000 years ago, the island was accessible by foot. The island is fairly close to the Normandy coast in France. During that period, the sea was lower due to the ice caps expanding.
We still aren't totally clear on why the Neanderthals made thousands of years' worth of visits to the cave. But it clearly meant something to them.
"We're really interested in how this site became 'persistent' in the minds of early Neanderthals," says Beccy Scott, a British Museum researcher. "You can almost see hints of early mapping in the way they are travelling to it again and again, or certainly an understanding of their geography... But specifically what drew them to Jersey so often is harder to tease out. It might have been that the whole island was highly visible from a long way off -- like a way-marker -- or people might have remembered that shelter could be found there, and passed that knowledge on."
Neanderthals were a species of archaic human that shared 99.7% of our DNA. They went extinct about 40,000 years ago, leaving skeleton remains and bone and stone tools. They evolved apart from the Homo sapiens line around 600,000 years ago. A small number of researchers, though, does not consider them an independent specie of hominid, but a subspecies of humans.
Neanderthals had shorter legs and larger bodies than we do, an adaptation meant to improve their chances of survival in high-latitude areas. Their heads were also much bigger than ours. Some fringe theorists believe that there might be pockets of relic Neanderthals still living today. Though there is no evidence to corroborate the speculation.