Spanish investigators believe they may have found proof that neanderthal man reached Europe from Africa not just via the Middle East but by sailing, swimming or floating across the Strait of Gibraltar.
Prehistoric remains of hunter-gatherer communities found at a site known as La Cabililla de Benzu, in the Spanish north African enclave of Ceuta, are remarkably similar to those found in southern Spain, investigators said. Stone tools at the site correspond to the middle paleolithic period, when neanderthal man emerged, and resemble those found across Spain.
"This could break the paradigm of most investigators, who have refused to believe in any contact in the paleolithic era between southern Europe and northern Africa," investigator Jose Ramos explained in the University of Cadiz's research journal.
Although the scientists have not yet reached definite conclusions, they say the evidence that neanderthal man mastered some primitive techniques for crossing the sea into Europe from the coast near Ceuta looks promising.
If the theory could be proved, and a two-pronged arrival of neanderthal man accepted, it would help solve some of the mysteries thrown up by prehistoric sites around Europe.
During the ice ages that affected much of Europe, the distance from Africa across the Strait of Gibraltar would have been much less than its current 13km, the investigators from Cadiz University said.
There was also evidence that small islands may have existed in the middle of the strait, which would have made travelling from one side to the other much easier.
Fauna and flora evidence from the same era suggested both sides of the Mediterranean were by no means isolated. A neanderthal ability to travel across small stretches of sea would help explain why the Iberian peninsula has older examples of human remains than, say, France.
"If the only way of getting to Europe was via the Middle East then, theoretically, they should have got to France before reaching Spain," Ramos said.
Investigators from Atapuerca, a Spanish site where some of the continent's oldest human remains have been found, will travel to Ceuta to help investigate.
Neanderthals appear to have been the dominant hominid in Europe until the emergence of modern humans. The first neanderthal skull was found in Gibraltar in 1848, although the species was not recognized until a second find in Germany in 1856.