(Comparison of Neanderthal and modern human skeletons. Photo: K. Mowbray, Reconstruction: G. Sawyer and B. Maley, Copyright: Ian Tattersall)
Neanderthals may have died out 10,000 years earlier than is commonly believed, suggests new dating of the remains of a Neanderthal infant.
The finding, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, may revise the present Neanderthal timeline. It’s commonly believed that Neanderthals from what is now Russia died out around 30,000 years ago. The latest discovery could push back the Neanderthal extinction, at least for this region, to 39,700 years ago, which was the age of the infant’s fossil.
Since modern humans are believed to have arrived in the northern Caucasus region just a few hundred years beforehand, that means our species may not have had much, if any, time to interact with Neanderthals.
Lead author Ron Pinhasi of University College Cork said in a press release:
(Ron Pinhasi; Credit: University College Cork, Ireland)
Pinhasi and his colleagues radiocarbon dated the Neanderthal infant remains, as well as the fossils for associated animal bones in Mezmaiskaya Cave, a key site in the northern Caucasus within European Russia. The revised dating indicates Neanderthals did not survive in this cave region much beyond the 39,700 years ago date, so maybe Mezmaiskaya Cave was a last stand for these large hominids.
Since their demise in this spot would appear to coincide with the arrival of our species, it’s possible that we wiped them out if interaction occurred. Other studies strongly support that interbreeding took place at some sites, so I hope we made love and not war in Russia too.
Another possibility is that Neanderthals died out in some spots before we even arrived, possibly due to climate change, dwindling resources, or other scenarios. Following this theory, the climate shift might have permitted modern humans to expand their territory, perhaps using better tool technologies to succeed where Neanderthals had failed.
Technology didn’t inhibit the researchers, though.
Co-author Tom Higham, Deputy Director of the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, explained: