Earlier dates for Neandertal extinction cause a fuss

Revised age suggests the hominids disappeared 40,000 years ago in Europe

EARLY DEPARTURE  European Neandertals, including one represented by this lower jaw excavated in southern Spain, survived no later than about 40,000 years ago, new radiocarbon dates suggest.

T. Higham

Neandertals died out in Western Europe earlier than many scientists thought, between about 41,000 and 39,000 years ago, after interbreeding with modern humans and picking up toolmaking pointers from them for a few thousand years, a new study suggests.

These new findings join a long-standing debate about the fate of the Neandertals that shows no signs of dimming.

Previous reports that some Neandertals survived in Southwestern Europe until more recently, about 30,000 years ago, hinged on underestimates of the age of carbon from ancient bones and other organic material, say archaeologist Tom Higham of the University of Oxford and his colleagues. Improved radiocarbon dating methods now indicate that Neandertals disappeared at different times in different regions of Western Europe before finally going extinct about 40,000 years ago, the scientists report in the Aug. 21 Nature.

The new dates also suggest that Neandertals and modern humans (Homo sapiens) simultaneously inhabited Western Europe for 2,600 to 5,400 years. While populations of the two hominids overlapped, they could have interbred and exchanged cultural knowledge.

Stone Age sites in Central and Eastern Europe have yet to be dated with the new techniques. That leaves a gap in what’s known about how long Neandertals survived and the extent to which they mingled with modern humans, archaeologist William Davies of the University of Southampton in England writes in the same issue of Nature. Still, he says, “future researchers will need to try hard to demonstrate Neandertal survival in Europe after 40,000 years ago.”

Higham’s team dated finds from 40 sites, all in Western Europe except for one in Russia and another in Lebanon. The researchers mainly dated animal bones displaying butchery marks. Several sites included Neandertal fossils that Higham’s team had previously dated. Stone tools at most sites had previously been attributed to the Mousterian and Châtelperronian cultures, usually regarded as Neandertals’ handiwork.

Neandertals had Europe largely to themselves 45,000 years ago, Higham’s team says. Over the next few thousand years, Neandertals vanished from different regions at different times. The Mousterian tools found in an Italian cave, for instance, were replaced between 44,800 and 43,950 years ago by cutting implements that the researchers attribute to modern humans.

Châtelperronian discoveries in France — thought by some researchers to represent a final phase of Neandertal culture and by others to be modern human creations (SN: 5/13/06, p. 305) — were made no later than 40,000 years ago, the investigators say.

Higham adds that sites in southern Spain, previously reported to have hosted Neandertals until roughly 30,000 years ago (SN: 9/23/06, p. 205), also don’t break the 40,000-year-old barrier in his analysis.

Higham’s results confirm suspicions that Europe’s last Neandertals and first modern humans inhabited parts of the continent at the same time, comments paleoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. In their last millennia, Neandertals made tools and personal ornaments, such as those representing the Châtelperronian culture, that were based on ideas and techniques picked up from modern humans, Hublin proposes.

Archaeologist João Zilhão of the University of Barcelona disagrees. It’s more likely that Neandertals were biological variants of H. sapiens that achieved independent cultural advances long before being genetically swamped by large numbers of incoming modern humans from Africa, he asserts. The earliest undisputed evidence for modern humans in Europe dates to 41,500 years ago, says Zilhão, who attributes the finds older than that in the Italian cave to Neandertals, not modern humans.

Neandertals’ survival after 40,000 years ago in Mediterranean areas remains an open question, Zilhão adds. Ongoing excavations in Mediterranean Spain point to an extended Neandertal occupation at a few sites, including several included in Higham’s new analysis, he says. 

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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