News / Science & Technology

Study: Our Life with Neanderthals Was No Brief Affair

FILE - A girl looks through the replica of a Neanderthal skull displayed at the Neanderthal Museum in Krapina, Croatia.
FILE - A girl looks through the replica of a Neanderthal skull displayed at the Neanderthal Museum in Krapina, Croatia.
Reuters

Far from wiping out Neanderthals overnight, modern humans rubbed along with their shorter and stockier cousins for thousands of years, giving plenty of time for the two groups to share ideas - and have sex.

The most accurate timeline yet for the demise of our closest relatives, published on Wednesday, shows Neanderthals overlapped with present-day humans in Europe for between 2,600 and 5,400 years before disappearing about 40,000 years ago.

Pinpointing how and when the Neanderthals became extinct has been tough because the mainstay process of radiocarbon dating is unreliable for samples that are more than 30,000 years old, due to contamination.

The latest six-year project by researchers at the University of Oxford used modern methods to remove contaminants and accurately date nearly 200 samples of bone, charcoal and shell from 40 important archeological sites across Europe.

The data showed that Neanderthals vanished from Europe between 39,000 and 41,000 years ago - but rather than being replaced rapidly by modern humans, their disappearance occurred at different times across sites from the Black Sea to the Atlantic.

“Now that we are using better techniques, the picture is becoming much more clear in terms of the process by which Neanderthals disappeared from Europe,” said lead researcher Tom Higham. “Our results suggest there was a mosaic of populations.”

Scientists already know from DNA evidence that there was some interbreeding between the two groups, although it is not clear whether this occurred once or many times. Recent studies have suggested between 1.5 and 2.1 percent of the DNA of modern non-African human populations originates from Neanderthals.

“In a way, our close cousins, as Neanderthals are, aren't extinct,” according to Higham. “They carry on in us today.”

Paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London, who was not involved in the research, said the new findings were “striking” and backed up the idea that modern humans and Neanderthals may have learnt from each other.

He believes interbreeding probably first occurred in Asia soon after modern humans began to leave Africa around 60,000 years ago, so the latest evidence indicates the two populations may have been in some kind of contact for up to 20,000 years - much longer than in Europe alone.

Not so dim-witted

Many scientists now reject the notion that Neanderthals were dim-witted brutes and point to evidence of use of symbolic objects, which may have been learnt from modern humans.

The Oxford team dated a number of items from sites of so-called transitional stone tool industries - viewed as either the work of the last of the Neanderthals or early modern humans - and found they were all between 40,000 and 45,000 years old, indicating a period of possible cultural exchange.

Interestingly, they found no evidence that Neanderthals and modern humans lived particularly closely together. Rather, Neanderthals probably survived in dwindling populations in pockets of Europe before dying out altogether.

It is unclear what killed off the Neanderthals, although theories include an inability to adapt to climate change and increased economic competition from more agile modern humans.

While the latest work provides the most robust timeline so far of the last days of the Neanderthals, there are still gaps in coverage, particularly in Siberia and eastern regions of Eurasia. That is something the researchers plan to address in follow-up investigations.

“Ultimately, our aim is to create kind of movies that show the arrival and departure of different sub-species of humans across Europe,” Higham said in an interview filmed in his lab. “We are part-way towards that but there is a still a lot more work we can do.”

Some scientists have hypothesized that late-surviving groups of Neanderthals lived in places such as Gibraltar after 40,000 years ago, but the latest dating provides no evidence of this, according to the Oxford team, whose findings were published in the journal Nature.

You May Like

Obama: Alaskans Feel Signs of Climate Change

They're seeing bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, more wildfires, erosion of glaciers, shorelines More

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

Magical Photo Slides Show Native Americans in Late 1800s

Walter McClintock spent 20 years photographing the Blackfoot Indians and their vanishing culture at the dawn of the modern age More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs