Neanderthals coexisted with modern humans for up to 5,000 years

New radiocarbon dates point to longer coexistence but earlier extinction

A new study published in the journal Nature suggests that Neanderthals persisted alongside modern humans in Europe for as long as 5,000 years after the arrival of the latter. A team lead by Tom Higham at Oxford obtained 196 AMS radiocarbon dates from 40 sites across Europe, relying on improved techniques to remove young carbon contamination. The results also indicate that the Neanderthals were probably extinct no later than 41,000 to 39,000 years ago.

Although it was once believed that Neanderthals and modern humans had coexisted for up to 10,000 years, work in the middle of the last decade suggested that the overlap was very brief.  The new results represent a reversion to the earlier position, albeit pushed further back in time since it is now believed that modern humans first reached Europe about 46,000 years ago (Higham’s team suggest the date was around 45,000 years ago).

The new dates may resolve long-running controversy over the Châtelperronian culture, with is believed to be of Neanderthal origin but incorporates elements associated with modern human behaviour. The dates indicate that the Châtelperronian began around 45,000 years ago, suggesting that it was influenced by interaction with modern humans. The Châtelperronian comes to an end at about the same time as the Mousterian, about 41,000 to 39,000 years ago.

The researchers were unfortunately unable to obtain any dates for remains from Gorham’s Cave, Gibraltar, where Neanderthal survival after 30,000 years ago has been claimed.

The lengthy overlap rules out the in any case improbable hypothesis that modern humans hunted down and exterminated the Neanderthals. It is more likely that a combination of increased competition for limited resources and the Heinrich Event 4 climatic downturn 40,000 years ago was responsible.

References:

  1. Higham, T. et al., The timing and spatiotemporal patterning of Neanderthal disappearance. Nature 512, 306-309 (2014).
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