You are here: Home About Keble News Dating the Final Disappearance of Neanderthals from Europe

Dating the Final Disappearance of Neanderthals from Europe

Friday 22 August 2014

Keble researchers are to the fore with the release of a new paper in Nature, which reveals the date of the disappearance of Neanderthals. The high-precision dating of bones and charcoal from 40 archaeological sites, from Russia to Spain, reveals that the disappearance of Neanderthals from Europe took place around 40,000 years ago. Rather than a rapid replacement of European Neanderthals by anatomically modern humans, the study, published in Nature, supports a more complex picture characterized by a biological and cultural mosaic that lasted for several thousand years.

A team led by Professor Tom Higham undertook the 6-year research project, which was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council. The two other senior authors on the Nature paper are former Keble doctoral students, Dr Katerina Douka and Dr Rachel Wood. Both worked on this research team whilst at Oxford.

Determining the spatial and temporal relationships between Neanderthals and early modern humans is critical to the understanding of the processes underlying and reasons for the disappearance of Neanderthals. However, technical challenges have hindered the reliable dating of the period, as samples older than about 50,000 years preserve too little carbon-14 for conventional radiocarbon dating to yield accurate results.

The team used improved sample processing and accelerator-mass-spectrometry radiocarbon dating to analyse bone samples and items from the Mousterian and Châtelperronian stone-tool industries, which have been associated with Neanderthals, and Uluzzian artefacts, which may have been made by modern humans. The results suggest that the Neanderthal disappearance and the end of the Mousterian culture occurred between 41,000 and 39,000 years ago, across sites ranging from the Black Sea to the Atlantic Coast. The findings also reveal a temporal overlap between Neanderthals and modern humans of 2,600 to 5,400 years, allowing for cultural — and possibly genetic — exchanges between the two groups.

Professor Higham said: ‘Other recent studies of Neanderthal and modern human genetic make-up suggest that both groups interbred outside Africa, with 1.5%-2.1% or more of the DNA of modern non-African human populations originating from Neanderthals. 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. The chronology also pinpoints the timing of the Neanderthals’ disappearance, and suggests they may have survived in dwindling populations in pockets of Europe before they became extinct.’

‘Previous radiocarbon dates have often underestimated the age of samples from sites associated with Neanderthals because the organic matter was contaminated with modern particles. We used ultrafiltration methods, which purify the extracted collagen from bone, 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. Of course the Neanderthals are not completely extinct because some of their genes are in most of us today.’

Previous research had suggested that the Iberian Peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal) and the site of Gorham’s Cave, Gibraltar, might have been the final places in Europe where Neanderthals survived. Despite extensive dating work, the research team could not confirm the previous dates. The paper suggests that poor preservation techniques for the dating material could have led to contamination and false ‘younger’ dates previously.

Image: Professor Tom Higham and former Keble doctoral student Dr Katerina Douka looking at stone tools from a Neanderthal site.