Neanderthals not wiped out overnight, new study shows

Credit: REUTERS/Nikola Solic

Credit: REUTERS/Nikola Solic

Far from wiping out Neanderthals overnight, new research claims that instead of suddenly being replaced by modern humans, they died out at different times across Europe.

The research suggests that modern humans and Neanderthals lived side by side in Europe for much longer than previously thought, leaving ample time for the exchange of ideas… and genes.

Researchers used new dating evidence from 200 bone, charcoal and shell samples from 40 Neanderthal tool-making sites ranging from Spain to Russia.

The results were used to create the most accurate timeline yet of the demise of our closest relatives and indicate that Neanderthal tool-making ended 39,000 – 40,000 years ago, overlapping with modern humans for up to 5,400 years.

The timing of Neanderthal disappearance and the extent to which they overlapped with the earliest incoming modern humans is crucial to understanding their disappearance and the likelihood of cultural and genetic exchange.

It is the first time researchers have produced such a detailed map showing when and where the Neanderthals died out.

The results also indicate that Neanderthals disappeared at different times, instead of being suddenly replaced by modern humans, as was previously thought.

The study claims that Neanderthals ‘may have survived in dwindling pockets of Europe’ for several thousand years, leaving ample time for interaction and interbreeding’.

Until now, pinpointing when Neanderthals became extinct had been tough because previous radiocarbon dates had underestimated the age of samples due to contamination with modern particles, the study claimed.

“Now that we are using better techniques, the picture is becoming much more clear in terms of the process by which Neanderthals disappeared from Europe,” said lead researcher Tom Higham from Oxford University. “Our results suggest there was a mosaic of populations.”

DNA evidence has already shown that that there was some interbreeding between Neanderthals and modern humans, although it is still not clear whether this occurred once or many times. Recent studies have suggested between 1.5 and 2.1 percent of the DNA of modern non-African human populations originates from Neanderthals.

‘Of course the Neanderthals are not completely extinct because some of their genes are in most of us today.’ said Higham.

However, not all researchers agree that the genetic similarities are due to inter-breeding. An earlier study by the University of Cambridge, published in 2012, claims to have found a common ancestor 500,000 years ago that would be enough to account for the shared DNA.

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Written by Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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