The last evidence of Neanderthal occupation in Europe has been radiocarbon-dated to around 30,000 years ago. New research published today, however, suggests that such dates are considerable underestimates. So, our closest relatives could have become extinct in Europe much earlier than previously thought.
Illustration of a Neanderthal. They may have gone extinct in Europe more than 10,000 years earlier than previously thought.
An international team of scientists led by Dr Rachel Wood of the University of Oxford (now at the Australian National University) have used a more accurate dating technique called ultrafiltration on bones from 2 sites in southern Spain, Jarama VI and Zafarray, that are thought to represent some of the last areas where Neanderthals existed.
The ultrafiltration method dates collagen in ancient bones and, importantly, is able to remove modern carbon that can contaminate the collagen.
Fossil and tool evidence has suggested that Neanderthals lived in Europe for hundreds of thousands of years and their last refuges were in the southernmost parts of Europe (such as southern Iberia).
In this latest research, the team obtained new dates of around 50,000 years for fossil bones from the Spanish sites, which had previously been dated to around 35,000 years.
Adult female Neanderthal skull from Gibraltar. Unearthed in 1848, it was the first to be discovered.
Other southern Spanish refuges include Gorham's cave in Gibraltar where charcoal associated with stone tools made by Neanderthals was dated to less than 30,000 years old.
Natural History Museum human origins expert Prof Chris Stringer was part of this Gorham's cave research team and says, 'As science and technology moves on, it has become increasingly clear that techniques such as ultrafiltration (applied to bone) and ABOx-SC (applied to charcoal) can remove remnant contamination in many cases, often yielding older radiocarbon dates.
'Applying these new techniques to 2 Spanish sites that are often cited as evidence of late Neanderthal survival suggests the dates for Neanderthal occupation are at least 10,000 years older than previously believed.
Selection of stone tools from Gorham's cave that Neanderthals would have used
'Clearly these new techniques should be applied to the remaining southern Iberian sites wherever possible, and until this is done there must be a significant question mark over the possible late survival of Neanderthals in the region.'
Most evidence for early modern humans' arrival in Europe is dated to around 35,000 years ago. The new dates, as well as other recent research, however, suggest that their arrival and contact with Neanderthals in Europe may have occurred earlier.
Stringer explains, 'We may also need to rethink the supposed late arrival of modern humans in the area, since evidence from Britain, Belgium, France, Germany and Italy is increasingly pointing to a modern human presence before 40,000 years ago.
'Those early moderns in Europe ultimately descended from migrants from Africa, who entered the Middle East about 60,000 years ago. There, based on recent DNA research, they may have interbred with Neanderthals.
'Since modern Europeans actually appear to show less evidence of Neanderthal interbreeding than modern Chinese, it may well be that Europe was not a major locus of interaction between Homo sapiens and the Neanderthals.'