Humans and Neanderthals may have coexisted in Europe for up to five millennia, according to new research. Refined carbon dating methods indicate that the modern man did not simply replace his hominid cousin.
Writers of a study published in the journal Nature concluded there was a high probability that pockets of Neanderthal culture survived until between 41,030 and 39,260 years ago.
Researchers used new carbon dating techniques and mathematical models to examine some 200 samples from about 40 sites as far apart as Spain and Russia.
The findings would appear to support a theory that Homo neanderthalis lived alongside Homo sapiens - who were late arrivals in Europe about 45,000 to 43,000 years ago - for longer than had been thought.
"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 study leader Thomas Higham, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford.
Scientists have long understood that some Neanderthal genes have survived in the DNA of modern humans, which would suggest a level of interbreeding. However, the scientific community has remained uncertain about the extent of contact there might have been between the two.
Keeping their distance
Researchers used special ultrafiltration methods to separate original organic matter, such as bone, from contaminants that were subsequently deposited. It appears that while the two hominid species did live alongside each other, although each appeared to keep largely to themselves, settling quite separately. "What we don't see is that there is spatial overlap," said Higham, referring to the settlement pattern.
Despite this, there is evidence to suggest that late-stage Neanderthals were culturally influenced by modern humans, with artifacts found at Neanderthal sites similar to those introduced to Europe by the migrating ancestors of modern humans.
The uptake of human culture would been happening even as Neanderthals, whose name derives from that of a valley in western Germany, were being pushed out of their own territory. The writers of the study suggest that there was a mosaic of populations in which the Neanderthals became gradually less prominent.
"I think they were eventually outcompeted," said Higham. "Neanderthals are not completely extinct, because some of their genes are in most of us today," he added.
rc/jr (AFP, AP, Reuters)