Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

How our closest cousins met their demise in Belgium

science editor

Belgium holds the secret to producing some of the finest chocolate, waffles and beer in the world but it turns out the country may also have the answer to where the last Neanderthals died out.

The latest and most precise date for when Neanderthals finally disappeared shows that the last time they walked the earth was 40,000 years ago, and they probably went extinct in Western Europe.

This means that they would have lived alongside anatomically modern humans, Homo sapiens, for as long as 20,000 years, giving ample time for the exchange of culture and genes, scientists said.

How and when the Neanderthals – close cousins of H. sapiens – died out have been two of the great mysteries of evolution, but a new set of radiocarbon dates of Neanderthal bones and artefacts has finally solved the latter.

Scientists have analysed 196 samples of bone, charcoal and shell from 40 key Neanderthal sites from Spain to Russia and concluded that this species of thick-set humans who adapted to cold climates disappeared throughout this entire region before 39,000 years ago.

This means that the overlap in Europe with the newly arrived Homo sapiens, with their more gracile anatomy and more complex stone and bone tools, must have lasted at least 4,000 years.

It could have been as long as 20,000 years in Asia, which anatomically modern humans had colonised long before reaching Europe.

Previous studies have suggested that Neanderthals, which first emerged in Eurasia about 250,000 years ago, quickly died out when H. sapiens appeared, suggesting intense competition for resources and even violent conflict, culminating in a “last-stand” in southern Spain.

However, more recent studies have found that there was a degree of genetic mixing and interbreeding between the two strands of humanity, especially in Asia, although this did not extend to a compete assimilation of the two.

Neanderthals survived in caves in Belgium as their population dwindled Neanderthals survived in caves in Belgium as their population dwindled (Getty) The latest study produced the first accurate dates for the final decline of the Neanderthals with the help of sophisticated developments in radio-carbon dating. It found a clear overlap within Europe that spanned some 25 to 250 generations – between 470 and 4,900 years depending on the region.

The overlap also fits with archaeological data on the kind of tools that each used, suggesting a period when Neanderthals began to copy the more sophisticated tool-making of the new migrants.

“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,” said Professor Tom Higham of Oxford University, lead author of the study published in the journal Nature.

“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,” Professor Higham said.


Click HERE for full-size version of graphic

A cave system near Spy in Belgium, rather than caves in Spain, may be one of the last sites in Europe for Neanderthals to have lived, although it is still too early to say this for sure, he said.

However, Professor Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural History Museum in London, said that the new analysis did not extend to eastern Neanderthal sites in Uzbekistan and Siberia – meaning it is possible that the species still survived in these enclaves for longer than in Europe.

“But the overall pattern seems clear. The Neanderthals had largely, and perhaps entirely, vanished from their known range by 39,000 years ago,” Professor Stringer said.

The demise coincided with a change in the climate to colder, drier conditions, he added. “It remains to be seen whether that event delivered the coup de grace to a Neanderthal population that was already low in numbers and genetic diversity, and trying to cope with the economic competition from incoming groups of H. sapiens,” he said.

Making history: carbon dating

The new dating technique eliminates the problem of contaminating carbon in archaeological artefacts. It uses a filtration system that eliminates particles from earlier periods in history that may have settled within the samples being analysed.

This has shown that some previous radiocarbon dates have been inaccurate, suggesting a long overlap between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens that did not actually occur, Professor Tom Higham said.

For instance, previous dates of Neanderthal fossils found at Zafarraya in southern Spain suggested they were 33,000 years old, which would mean several thousand years of overlap with modern humans – who were known to have appeared here about 40,000 years ago.

However, the actual dates of the Neanderthal fossils at Zafarraya are more than 47,000 years old, calling into question whether there was any overlap at all with modern humans at this site.

“Previous radiocarbon dates have often underestimated the age of samples because the organic matter was contaminated with modern particles,” Professor Higham said. “We used ultrafiltration methods which purify the extracted collagen from bone, to avoid the risk of modern contamination.”

News
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
people
Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
News
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
News
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister
news

Met Police confirm there was a 'minor disturbance' and that no-one was arrested

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
News
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)
news

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
Northern soul mecca the Wigan Casino
fashionGone are the punks, casuals, new romantics, ravers, skaters, crusties. Now all kids look the same
Life and Style
gaming

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album