Neanderthals and humans had 'ample time' to mix

Aug 20, 2014 by Frank Jordans
Neanderthal jaw from Zafaraya southern Spain. Credit: Thomas Higham

Humans and Neanderthals may have coexisted in Europe for more than 5,000 years, providing ample time for the two species to meet and mix, according to new research.

Using new carbon dating techniques and mathematical models, researchers examined about 200 samples found at 40 sites from Spain to Russia, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature. They concluded with a high probability that pockets of Neanderthal culture survived until between 41,030 and 39,260 years ago.

Although this puts the disappearance of Neanderthals earlier than some scientists previously thought, the findings support the idea that they lived alongside humans, who arrived in Europe about 45,000-43,000 years ago.

"We believe we now have the first robust timeline that sheds new light on some of the key questions around the possible interactions between Neanderthals and modern humans," said Thomas Higham, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford who led the study.

While it's known that Neanderthal genes have survived in the DNA of many modern humans to this day, suggesting that at least some interbreeding took place, scientists are still unclear about the extent of their contact and the reasons why Neanderthals vanished.

"These new results confirm a long-suspected chronological overlap between the last Neanderthals and the first modern humans in Europe," said Jean-Jacques Hublin, director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who wasn't involved in the study.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.

Apart from narrowing the length of time that the two species existed alongside each other to between 2,600 and 5,400 years, Higham and his colleagues also believe they have shown that Neanderthals and humans largely kept to themselves.

"What we don't see is that there is spatial overlap (in where they settled)," said Higham.

This is puzzling, because there is evidence that late-stage Neanderthals were culturally influenced by . Samples taken from some Neanderthal sites include artifacts that look like those introduced to Europe by humans migrating from Africa.

This would point to the possibility that Neanderthals—whose name derives from a valley in western Germany—adopted certain human habits and technologies even as they were being gradually pushed out of their territory.

"I think they were eventually outcompeted," said Higham.

Tom Higham and Katerina Douka selecting samples for dating. Credit: Thomas Higham

Wil Roebroeks, an archaeologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, cautioned that the study relies to a large decree on testing of stone tools, rather than bones, and these haven't been conclusively linked to particular species, or hominins.

"The results of this impressive dating study are clear, but the assumptions about the association of stone artefact with hominin types underlying the interpretation of the dating results will be undoubtedly rigorously tested in field- and laboratory work over the near future," said Roebroeks, who wasn't involved in the study. "Such testing can now be done with a chronologically clean slate."

Explore further: Genetic testing shows Neanderthals less diverse than modern humans

More information: The timing and spatiotemporal patterning of Neanderthal disappearance, Nature,dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature13621

Journal reference: Nature search and more info website

4.3 /5 (11 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Neanderthals died out earlier than originally believed

May 10, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- According to a newly released report in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a newly refined method of radiocarbon dating has found that Neanderthals died off much earlier than o ...

Recommended for you

New hadrosaur noses into spotlight

Sep 19, 2014

Call it the Jimmy Durante of dinosaurs – a newly discovered hadrosaur with a truly distinctive nasal profile. The new dinosaur, named Rhinorex condrupus by paleontologists from North Carolina State Univer ...

Militants threaten ancient sites in Iraq, Syria

Sep 19, 2014

For more than 5,000 years, numerous civilizations have left their mark on upper Mesopotamia—from Assyrians and Akkadians to Babylonians and Romans. Their ancient, buried cities, palaces and temples packed ...

New branch added to European family tree

Sep 17, 2014

The setting: Europe, about 7,500 years ago. Agriculture was sweeping in from the Near East, bringing early farmers into contact with hunter-gatherers who had already been living in Europe for tens of thousands ...

User comments : 0