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New Testing Indicates European Neanderthals Vanished Earlier

New Testing Indicates European Neanderthals Vanished Earlier

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In a game-changing  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  article, a multinational team of archaeologists and paleoanthropologists have produced persuasive evidence that shows northern European Neanderthals disappeared much earlier than previously suspected. Applying the latest radiocarbon dating technology, the scientists re-tested European Neanderthal specimens discovered in Belgium’s Grotte de Spy (or Spy Cave), which had previously been dated to around 35,000 BC. 

As it turns out, this initial dating was off by several thousand years. It seems the European Neanderthal specimens recovered from Spy Cave actually belonged to individuals who had lived between the years 42,200 BC and 38,600 BC.

These results decisively invalidate past results and prove that European Neanderthals only lived alongside humans in northern Europe for a relatively short time.

The Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, using the latest in radiocarbon dating, can use amino acids as the source material. ( Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit )

New Tech Provided Better European Neanderthal Dating Results

“Dating is crucial in archaeology,”  explained Tom Higham , a University of Oxford archaeologist and study participant affiliated with the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, where the new tests were performed.

“Without a reliable framework of chronology we can’t really be confident in understanding the relationships between Neanderthals and  Homo sapiens  as we moved into Europe 45,000 years ago and they began to disappear. That’s why these methods are so exciting, because they provide much more accurate and reliable dates.” Tom Higham

In search of confirmatory evidence, the archaeologists applied the new dating techniques to European  Neanderthalspecimens found in two other caves in Belgium,  Engis and Fonds-de-Forêt. The radiocarbon accelerator produced similar results for these remains, locating them within the same 42,200—38,600 BC time frame that had been assigned to the Spy Cave specimens.

No other Neanderthal fossils discovered in the region have been dated to more recent times, which strongly suggests (to a 95.4 percent probability, according to the scientists) that Neanderthals had vanished as a distinct social and cultural group from northwestern Europe by the end of this time period.

The northern European Neanderthal skull, Spy 2, found in 1886 in Belgium's Spy Cave. (We El /  CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Why The Original Neanderthal Radiocarbon Results Were Wrong

After analyzing previous  radiocarbon dating  attempts more closely, the scientists have come up with a theory to explain why the original results obtained from the Spy Cave  Neanderthal specimens  were so inaccurate, and so deceptive. 

Their analysis of the European Neanderthal bones removed from Spy Cave revealed that they had been heavily contaminated with bovine DNA. This could have easily skewed the earlier results, making it seem like Neanderthals had occupied the cave much more recently than was actually the case. 

This contamination didn’t result from cows wandering around inside the cave. It was introduced by humans, who used a  glue manufactured from cattle bones to preserve the Neanderthal specimens. This mistake was understandable, given that the first Neanderthal remains excavated inside Spy Cave were recovered in 1886, a full 60 years before the invention of radiocarbon dating and long before anyone could have dreamed that contamination might be a problem.

At the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, researchers use a sophisticated technique known as liquid chromatography separation to perform radiocarbon dating tests. With this refined methodology, they can extract solitary  amino acids  from Neanderthal remains, eliminating any possibility of contamination and guaranteeing a far more accurate result than was previously obtainable. 

With a truly reliable dating technology available, the scientists involved in this new study were able to clear up serious misunderstandings that had distorted the comprehension of European prehistory. The fact that specimens from Spy Cave, Engis, and Fonds-de-Forêt all produced identical results was especially revealing and has put archaeologists and paleoanthropologists on firmer ground as they continue to modify and update their theories and assessments.

"Dating all these Belgian specimens was very exciting, as they played a major role in the understanding and the definition of Neanderthals,"  said study participant Gregory Abrams , who works at the Scladina Cave Archaeological Centre in Belgium. "Almost two centuries after the discovery of the Neanderthal child of Engis, we were able to provide a reliable age."

A Neanderthal (left) standing next to a modern Homo sapiens. Nearly 20% of the Neanderthal genome exists in modern humans! ( nicolasprimola / Adobe Stock)

The Legacy Of European Neanderthals Lives On In Us!

Regardless of when European Neanderthals finally disappeared, they still co-existed with modern humans in northern Europe for at least a few centuries, and those interactions had consequences.

“There must have been opportunities for possible cultural and genetic exchange,” Professor Higham noted. In fact, the original discoverers of Grotte de Spy found early modern human remains alongside those of the Neanderthals, which provides strong evidence that such exchanges did indeed take place.  

While Homo sapiens and Neanderthals are often referred to as separate species, in truth they were related and could interbreed, which they most certainly did. DNA analysis has revealed that between 1.5 and 2.1 percent of the human genome is comprised of genetic materials inherited from the Neanderthals. Overall, about  20 percent of the total Neanderthal genome  still exists within the collective human gene pool. 

Neanderthals may no longer exist as a distinct “species.” But in a very real sense they live on inside us all as both distant cousins and progenitors.

Top image: The European Neanderthal jawbone found in Spy Cave, Belgium and radiocarbon tested with the latest technology from Oxford University.                Source:  Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences

By Nathan Falde

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