When did the last Neanderthal die? New study changes timeline
Almost two centuries after the Dutch naturalist Philippe-Charles Schmerling discovered the first Neanderthal fossil in 1829, we’re still trying to piece together the puzzle of our former parents.
But one study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences offers new answers – and updates the timeline of the moment Neanderthals may have disappeared from Europe.
When did the Neanderthals disappear?
A team of researchers from Belgium, England and Germany collaborated across all disciplines and came up with a surprising hypothesis: previous scientists were wrong about the timing of Neanderthal extinction.
Scientists discovered that Neanderthals were probably extinct from northwestern Europe roughly 40,000 to 44,000 years ago – sooner than we thought.
Previous radiocarbon dating analysis of Neanderthal remains found in what is known as the spy cave in Belgium has determined ages as recently as 24,000 years ago. During this time, it is more commonly believed that Neanderthals disappeared sometime between 30,000 and 40,000 years since.
The study team conducted a new analysis on the Neanderthals of Spy Cave, as well as other Neanderthal remains found in Belgium, finding a new period of extinction.
Context needed – Extinction, as far as Neanderthals are concerned, is complicated. Although no Neanderthals live today, some scientists do not consider their disappearance to be “true extinction“Because they were assimilated to the modern human gene pool.
Meanwhile, previous research indicates that Neanderthals use of stone tools probably ended between 39,000 and 41,000 years ago, suggesting end of life.
It is also very likely that the Neanderthal disappearance occurred in waves. Some research suggests that there were Neanderthals surviving late or “in transition.”
This team wanted to better assess the chronology of the disappearance of Neanderthals from Europe using fossils found in caves in Belgium. To date, archaeologists have discovered Neanderthal remains in nine caves in Belgium.
One site in particular, the spy cave, intrigued researchers for the large number of Neanderthal remains it contains. Original excavations conducted in the late 1800s uncovered 89 hominid bone fragments from two different Neanderthals, while later investigations uncovered 24 more Neanderthal fossils.
How they did it – Researchers have developed a more robust method for dating Neanderthal specimens using “compound specific radiocarbon analysis. “
This method isolates a single amino acid – the amino acid hydroxyproline (HYP) – from bone collagen. It is more robust than other radiocarbon dating methods because the amino acid is only found in mammalian collagen.
Using this compound-specific technique, the researchers retested four Neanderthals in the Spy Cave, suggesting new dates for each. They also used this method on Neanderthals found in Engis and Fonds-de-Forêt.
Based on these dates, the scientists built a statistical model to determine the probability of the last Neanderthal occupation of Belgium.
Dig into the details – Researchers found that the Neanderthals were older than previously thought – some up to 10,000 years older.
Their statistical model indicated that there was a very high probability, 95 percent, that Neanderthals became extinct in northwestern Europe around 40,600 to 44,200 years ago.
The study team writes:
“When redefining Paleolithic sites using this so-called ‘compound-specific radiocarbon analysis’ (CSRA) approach, we observed that many of the previous radiocarbon dates obtained after less robust pretreatments are inaccurate. This in turn can lead to misinterpretations of human and wildlife dispersal and rates of change in archaeological, climatic and evolutionary records.
Researchers suggest fossil preservation techniques used in the 1800s, which involved applying glue made from animal collagen, could have made things more difficult for later scientists to accurately date these Neanderthal specimens – and lead to inaccurate dates.
But using their new method, the scientists in this study were able to “decontaminate” the fossils, allowing for precise analysis.
Why is this important – Getting the exact date of these Neanderthal fossils is crucial to understanding the extinction of the Neanderthals, as well as their relationship to early modern humans.
“Without a reliable chronological framework, we cannot really be sure that we understand the relationships between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. “
And after – This study team has developed a robust method for dating fossils of ancient peoples, like the Neanderthals.
But if we are to truly understand Neanderthals, other new and robust methods are needed as well. This team suggests retesting the dates of other Neanderthal specimens using their compound-specific approach.
However, the ultimate question remains unanswered: What caused Neanderthals are disappearing from the face of the Earth?
The researchers cite a few possible reasons – climate change, inbreeding, and competition from ancient hominids – but say “these are beyond the scope of this article.”
Perhaps these new dating methods will help future paleontologists solve this question, once and for all.
Abstract: Elucidating when Neanderthal populations became extinct from Eurasia is a key question in paleoanthropology, and Belgium is one of the key regions for studying the transition from the Middle Paleolithic to Upper. Previous radiocarbon dating placed the spy Neanderthals among the last surviving Neanderthals in northwestern Europe with dates reported as young as 23,880 ± 240 BP (OxA-8912). However, questions have been raised as to the reliability of these dates. Soil contamination and carbon-based preservatives are known to cause problems when radiocarbon dating loose collagen samples. Using a compound-specific approach which is today the most effective at removing contamination and ancient genomic analysis, we demonstrate here that previous dates produced on Spy Neanderthal specimens were inaccurately young up to 10,000 years old in due to the presence of unchecked contamination. Our compound-specific radiocarbon dates on Neanderthals from Spy and those from Engis and Fonds-de-Forêt show that they disappeared from northwestern Europe between 44,200 and 40,600 cal BP (at 95.4% probability), much earlier than previously suggested. Our data contribute significantly to refine models of Neanderthal disappearance in Europe and, more broadly, show that chronometric models concerning the appearance or disappearance of groups of animals or hominids should only be based on radiocarbon dates. obtained using robust pretreatment methods.