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Neanderthal man at the Natural History Museum London

Refined Analysis Asserts There was No Human-Neanderthal Interaction at Vindija Cave

Researchers have used a more refined screening method in conjunction with radiocarbon dating on a popular collection of Neanderthal remains found at Vindija Cave in Croatia. Their results show that the remains are much older than previously found and negate the common belief that genetically modern humans interacted with Neanderthals at the major research site.

According to Phys.org, these remains have been dated various times since they were found in the cave almost 40 years ago. The earlier dates for the Neanderthal remains range from 28,000 to 29,000 years ago and more recent tests suggested they are 32,000 to 34,000 years old. However, the present test has used a new process called ZooMS screening to identify collagen from a previously unrecognized Neanderthal bone. Their results indicate the remains are approximately 40,000 years old.

Reconstruction of Neanderthals burying an individual in a cave. National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC, USA.

Reconstruction of Neanderthals burying an individual in a cave. National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC, USA. (Ricardo Giaviti/ CC BY NC SA 2.0 )

The ZooMS (Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry) test allowed the researchers to identify potential hominin bone fragments among unidentified faunal remains from the Vindija Cave site. Their ZooMS screening involved taking purified collagen samples found in bone and identifying the amino acid hydroxyproline. The ZooMS test is also known as collagen fingerprinting. Collagen is an abundant protein that provides most of your body’s structure. It can be found at archaeological sites in remains such as bones and teeth. Amino acids are the building blocks for proteins.

Vindija Cave in Croatia where Neanderthal DNA has been found. ( CC BY SA 2.0 )

With the hydroxyproline amino acid isolated, the researchers used accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon dating to reach the aforementioned date of 40,000 years ago. Harvey et al. (2016) explain in their paper ‘ Collagen Fingerprinting: A New Screening Technique for Radiocarbon Dating Ancient Bone ’ that the ZooMS test can be used “as an alternative screening method for radiocarbon dating due to its ability to provide information on collagen presence and quality, alongside species identification.”

One of the main reasons researchers have shown so much interest in the Neanderthal remains at Vindija Cave is because they are believed to be the relics of some of the last Neanderthals in the area. Until this research came out, it has been a common belief that these Neanderthals had lived alongside genetically modern humans for a short period of time. Thus, there was a great deal of interest in trying to discover the nature of the Neanderthal-Human interactions at the site.

A reconstructed Neanderthal skeleton, right, is displayed next to a modern human skeleton at the Museum of Natural History in New York.

A reconstructed Neanderthal skeleton, right, is displayed next to a modern human skeleton at the Museum of Natural History in New York. (Museum of Natural History in New York )

However, the new age for the Neanderthal remains negates the existence of that proposed relationship and could have major repercussions for interest in future research at the cave site. It isn’t surprising that there have already been questions and debate coming out in light of the research results.

For example, archaeologist João Zilhão, of the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom (who wasn’t involved in the present study) told Science Magazine that while the researchers had a good idea in avoiding contamination through the testing of a specific amino acid, the team has to have the results replicated by other laboratories before the controversial date could be accepted as fact.

Neanderthal bone found at Vindija Cave, Croatia.

Neanderthal bone found at Vindija Cave, Croatia. ( Thomas Higham )

Even if the results ultimately prove Neanderthals and genetically modern humans could not have interacted at Vindija Cave, hope is not lost in exploring the nature of their relationships at other sites. As one of the current study’s lead authors, archaeologist Thibaut Devièse of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, said:

“DNA studies have demonstrated that anatomically modern humans and Neandertals interbred. There is no question about this … although the two groups for the most part were not living side-by-side, it would seem. With this dating work, we are continuing our work to understand where and for how long the two species coexisted.”

The prominence of Neanderthal-modern human interbreeding has been exposed through DNA analysis. As a 2016 study on this topic explains:

“People living today who are of European, Eurasian and Asian descent have well-identified Neanderthal-derived segments in their genome. These fragments are traces of interbreeding that followed the "out of Africa" human migration dating to about 60,000 years ago. They imply that children born of Neanderthal-modern human pairings outside of Africa were raised among the modern humans and ultimately bred with other humans, explaining how bits of Neanderthal DNA remain in human genomes.”

Another recent study wants to get the dirt on how much Neanderthals and modern humans actually had sex by searching for hard to attain Neanderthal DNA from disintegrated skeletons in caves. Researchers have to go to these extremes because NPR says most archaeologists who’ve excavated Neanderthal skeletal remains are reluctant to share - even though geneticists and other scientists need just about 0.001 percent of an ounce of DNA for most of their work.

Comparison of Modern Human and Neanderthal skulls from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. (Deriv) ( CC BY SA 2.0 )

Top Image: Neanderthal man at the Natural History Museum London. Source: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

By Alicia McDermott

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