By: Nicholas Paphitis, Associated Press
ATHENS (AP).- High in the wind-swept mountain ridges of northern Greece, archaeologists have made a surprising discovery: hundreds of prehistoric stone tools that may have been used by some of the last Neanderthals in Europe, at a time when hunter-gatherers were thought to have kept to much lower altitudes.
The two sites used between 50,000 to 35,000 years ago were found last summer in the Pindos Mountains, near the village of Samarina one of Greece's highest some 400 kilometers (250 miles) northwest of Athens.
At an altitude of more than 1,700 meters (5,500 feet), the Pindos Neanderthal sites are the highest known so far in southeastern Europe, although that's probably because nobody thought of searching so high before, archaeologist Nikos Efstratiou said Wednesday.
"It's not that such sites don't exist," Efstratiou told The Associated Press. "For the first time, Greek archaeology has gone to the mountains."
Efstratiou and a team of Italian colleagues started the Pindos survey in 2003, pinpointing more than 200 small concentrations of up to a dozen tools. But last summer's discoveries were much richer, and their location challenged theories that modern humans' extinct, thickset cousins were constrained in their movements to lowland areas.
"We found hundreds of tools, which means that these people continuously visited and revisited these locations, for hundreds or thousands of years," said Efstratiou, a professor at the University of Thessaloniki.
"They were moving at high altitudes of up to 2,200 meters ... and not lower, along river beds, which we believed until now was the only course these groups followed."
The closest extinct relative to modern people, Neanderthals lived in much of central and southern Europe and western Asia from about 400,000 years ago to about 30,000 years ago. They coexisted with modern humans for 30,000 to 50,000 years, and recent genetic research suggested that the two species interbred.
The story of the Neanderthals in Greece remains as elusive as their skeletal remains. While several lower-lying sites have been found, only a single tooth has survived from their users.
Paleoanthropologist Katerina Harvati said the discovery of Paleolithic stone artefacts in great concentrations in the Pindos highlands "is certainly important."
"(The discovery) will help us understand the lifestyle and capabilities of prehistoric people like Neanderthals and early modern humans and their reactions to climatic shifts during the Late Pleistocene" period, which ended about 12,000 years ago, she told the AP in an e-mail.
Harvati, who is head of Paleoanthropology at the Tubingen/Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Paleoecology in Germany, was not involved in the Pindos project.
Efstratiou believes the Neanderthals were drawn to the water-rich highlands by the animals they hunted, which favored the open, treeless spaces, and an abundance of flint that they chipped into tools and weapons.
"We found flint blades and sharp-tipped implements ... with which they hunted and skinned their prey," he said.
"It appears that these late groups of Neanderthal hunter-gatherers may have been among the last that survived in Europe," he added. "Although not everybody agrees on this, it seems that because climate conditions in central Europe were very unfriendly, they moved south in search of warmer areas.
"And then they disappeared, leaving their place to modern humans but that is another prehistoric mystery."
The team's findings will be presented at an archaeological conference in northern Greece on Thursday.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.