Modern Humans, Neanderthals Lived Together Longer Than Previously Thought
redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online
Neanderthals died out approximately 10,000 years earlier than previously believed, due in part to the fact that modern humans arrived in Europe sooner than originally thought, an international team of researchers reported Wednesday in the journal Nature.
Professor Thomas Higham of the University of Oxford and his colleagues obtained new radiocarbon dates for roughly 200 bone, charcoal and shell samples from 40 important European archaeological sites, ranging from Russia in the east to Spain in the west. Over the course of six years, they were able to piece together a surprising new chronology by using mathematical models combining the new dates with established archaeological stratigraphic evidence.
According to BBC News science correspondent Pallab Ghosh, the study authors discovered that modern humans and Neanderthals actually lived together in Europe 10 times longer than originally believed. The two species lived side-by-side for as much as 5,000 years, Ghosh said, and the researchers believe they might have even exchanged both ideas and elements of their cultures.
Furthermore, Dan Vergano of National Geographic noted that fossil analysis reveals that Neanderthals vanished 40,000 years ago, and that the finding adds new evidence to support the notion that it was the arrival of modern humans in Europe that ultimately “pushed our ancient Stone Age cousins into extinction.”
“The study also clarifies the length of time in which modern humans and Neanderthals overlapped, bolstering a theory that the two species met, bred and possibly exchanged or copied vital toolmaking techniques,” added Gautam Naik of the Wall Street Journal. “It represents another twist in an enduring puzzle about human origins: why modern humans triumphed while the better-adapted and similarly intelligent Neanderthals died out.”
Higham and his fellow investigators studied a total of 196 samples, largely comprised of bones from prey species such as deer, bison and mammoth, Vergano said. Each of the bones contain marks created by a special type of stone blade used by Neanderthals, he explained, and the radiocarbon dating of those bones indicate that the species experienced a population decrease coinciding with the arrival of early modern humans some 50,000 years ago.
“Competitive pressure from those early Europeans, who hunted many of the same prey species, may have helped isolate Neanderthals, hastening the extinction of a branch of humankind that had previously weathered ice ages and what geneticists call ‘population bottlenecks,” the National Geographic reporter added. “The new arrivals may have spurred an era of stone tool use among the Neanderthals that overlaps with the arrival time of the new migrants.”
Ghosh said that many previous attempts to date Neanderthal remains have been considered unreliable, and had suggested that modern humans co-existed with their ancient ancestors in Europe for as little as 500 years. The BBC News reporter noted that the new dating methods used in the new study were the most accurate obtained to date.
“Previous radiocarbon dates have often underestimated the age of samples from sites associated with Neanderthals because the organic matter was contaminated with modern particles,” Higham said in a statement. “We used ultrafiltration methods… to avoid the risk of modern contamination. This means we can say with more confidence that we have finally resolved the timing of the disappearance of our close cousins, the Neanderthals.”
The Neanderthals Rediscovered: How Modern Science Is Rewriting Their Story by Dimitra Papagianni