Neanderthals disappeared from North West Europe much earlier than originally thought

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08 March 2021
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Maxilla and mandible assemblage of a late Neanderthal from Spy cave
Neanderthal fossil remains from the key site of Spy cave in Belgium may be up to 44,200 years old - around 5,000 years older than previously thought, new research has revealed.

The paper, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, relates to the re-dating of the Neadnerthal remains from Spy Cave by a team based in Oxford’s Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit.

Most of the dates obtained in this new study have been found to be much older than those obtained previously on the same bone samples—up to 5,000 years older in certain cases. According to the paper, Re-evaluating the timing of Neanderthal disappearance in Northwest Europe, this suggests Neanderthals disappeared from the region 44,200-40,600 years ago, much earlier than previously estimated.

How was the research carried out?

The team used an advanced method for radiocarbon dating fossil bones. Using liquid chromatography separation, they were able to extract a single amino acid from the Neanderthal remains for dating. This so-called ‘compound-specific’ approach allows scientists to reliably date the bones and exclude carbon from contaminants such as those from the glue that was applied to the fossils. These contaminants have plagued previous attempts to reliably date the Belgian Neanderthals because their presence resulted in dates that were much too young.

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The results also highlight the need for robust pre-treatment methods when dating Palaeolithic human remains to minimize biases due to contamination, according to the authors. The team is now analysing archaeological evidence, such as bone tools, to further refine our understanding of the cultural transition between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens in this region. 

An exciting find

Oxford Professor Tom Higham said: ‘Dating is crucial in archaeology, 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. The results suggest again that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals probably overlapped in different parts of Europe and there must have been opportunities for possible cultural and genetic exchange.’

Lead author, Dr Thibaut Devièse added: ‘The new chemistry methods we have applied in the case of Spy and other Belgian sites provide the only means by which we can decontaminate these key Neanderthal bones for dating and check that contaminants have been fully removed. This gives us confidence in the new ages we obtained for these important specimens.’