Last Neanderthals died out 37,000 years ago

January 27, 2010
Last Neanderthals died out 37,000 years ago
Teeth from Pego do Diabo, Portugal. Photo courtesy of PLoS ONE

( -- The last Neanderthals in Europe died out at least 37,000 years ago - and both climate change and interaction with modern humans could be involved in their demise, according to new research from the University of Bristol published today in PLoS ONE.

The paper, by Professor João Zilhão and colleagues, builds on his earlier research which proposed that, south of the Cantabro-Pyrenean mountain chain, Neanderthals survived for several millennia after being replaced or assimilated by anatomically everywhere else in Europe.

Although the reality of this 'Ebro Frontier' pattern has gained wide acceptance since it was first proposed by Professor Zilhão some twenty years ago, two important aspects of the model have remained the object of unresolved controversy: the exact duration of the frontier; and the causes underlying the eventual disappearance of those refugial Neanderthal populations (ecology and climate, or competition with modern human immigrants).

Professor Zilhão and colleagues now report new dating evidence for the Late Aurignacian of Portugal, an archaeological culture unquestionably associated with modern humans, that firmly constrains the age of the last Neanderthals of southern and western Iberia to no younger than some 37,000 years ago.

This new evidence therefore puts at five millennia the duration of the Iberian Neanderthal refugium, and counters speculations that Neanderthal populations could have remained in the Gibraltar area until 28,000 years ago.

These findings have important implications for the understanding of the archaic features found in the anatomy of a 30,000 year old child unearthed at Lagar Velho, Portugal. With the last of the Iberian Neanderthals dating to many millennia before the child was born, 'freak' crossbreeding between immediate ancestors drawn from distinct 'modern' and 'Neanderthal' gene pools cannot be a viable explanation. The skeleton's archaic features must therefore represent evolutionarily significant admixture at the time of contact, as suggested by the team who excavated and studied the fossil.

Professor Zilhão said: "I believe the 'Ebro frontier' pattern was generated by both climatic and demographic factors, as it coincides with a period of globally milder climate during which oak and pine woodlands expanded significantly along the west façade of Iberia.

"Population decrease and a break-up of interaction networks probably occurred as a result of the expansion of such tree-covered landscapes, favouring the creation and persistence of population refugia.

"Then, as environments opened up again for large herbivore herds and their hunters as a result of the return to colder conditions, interaction and movement across the previous boundary must have ensued, and the last of the underwent the same processes of assimilation or replacement that underpin their demise elsewhere in Europe five millennia earlier."

The dating was undertaken by experts at the University of Vienna (VERA laboratory) led by Professor Eva Maria Wild, and at the University of Oxford's Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit.

Professor Wild, head of the 14C program at VERA (Vienna Environmental Research Accelerator) said: "Accurate 14C dating was crucial for this study. For layer 2 of the cave sediment we achieved this by selecting teeth for 14C dating and by comparing the 14C results of the same sample after different, elaborate sample pre-treatments. Agreement between the results obtained with different methods provides a proof for accurate dating."

Explore further: Scientists redate Neanderthal fossils

More information: 'Pego do Diabo (Loures, Portugal): Dating the Emergence of Anatomical Modernity in Westernmost Eurasia' by João Zilhão, Simon J. M. Davis, Cidália Duarte, António Soares, Peter Steier, Eva Wild in PLoS ONE.

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1 / 5 (1) Jan 27, 2010
I wonder how far back those teeth REALLY date to. I'm sure Professor Zilhão is deeply intrenched in the knowledge filter that is modern archaeology. That last paragraph makes no sense. Just do the radio carbon dating on the soil, take some geological samples, and tell us how old it really is. I bet its more than 30,000 years.
1 / 5 (1) Jan 27, 2010
Neanderthals are still with us. The answer to the question of whether or not we interbred with them is obvious. Modern man would screw a tree if it had a knothole. What do you think our ancestors were like? Puritans? What's more I think you can see their bloodline any time you go to the beach. It seems to me that people have 2 kinds of feet. One kind the big toe is the longest. The other kind the second toe is much longer than the big toe. I think that might be a sign of a primitive bloodline. Or maybe it's because my foot is the former type. :)
5 / 5 (1) Jan 27, 2010
@fourthrocker: I have no doubt that some of our ancestors played "footsie" with Neanderthals but the genetic evidence seems to rule out any interbreeding. See:
Last I heard the dominant theory is that both our two species descended from Homo Heidelbergensis around 500,000 years ago.
not rated yet Jan 27, 2010
PieRSquare - check out the article again (and thanks for the link) They've confirmed mitochondrial dna is not there so "no one's mama" was a neanderthal. However, they are still checking on the male side so "someone's papa" might be. Also, the low numbers of breeding neanderthal females in europe? Will be interesting to see..
not rated yet Jan 27, 2010
PieRSquare - check out the article again (and thanks for the link) They've confirmed mitochondrial dna is not there so "no one's mama" was a neanderthal. However, they are still checking on the male side so "someone's papa" might be. Also, the low numbers of breeding neanderthal females in europe? Will be interesting to see..
not rated yet Jan 27, 2010
optimacy - Your point is well-taken, I should have re-read the article a bit more carefully. I suspect however that if there were no mamas that the chance there were papas is pretty low. If they were cross-fertile I would expect you would see evidence from both sides. Nevertheless I'm looking forward to what they find out. I wonder if it's possible that they might have been able produce infertile offspring in the same way you get a mule from breeding a horse and a donkey.
1 / 5 (1) Jan 27, 2010
And climate change was mentioned because this was the source of funding for the reasearch?
not rated yet Jan 27, 2010
hmmm, i wonder if they were driving hummers around and lighting thier caves with electricity from coal fired power plants.

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