How Old Neanderthal Man?
The Neanderthal is an extinct member of the Homo genus known from Pleistocene specimens found in Europe and parts of western and central Asia. The first proto-Neanderthal traits appeared in Europe as early as 350,000—600,000 years ago. These characteristics are generally thought of as disappeared in Asia by 50,000 years ago and in Europe by about 30,000 years ago. Researchers have dated a Neanderthal fossil discovered in a significant cave site in Russia in the northern Caucasus, and found it to be 10,000 years older than previous research had suggested. This new evidence throws into doubt the theory that Neanderthals and modern humans interacted for thousands of years. Instead, the researchers believe any co-existence between Neanderthals and modern humans is likely to have been much more restricted, perhaps a few hundred years. It could even mean that in some areas Neanderthals had become extinct before anatomically modern humans moved out of Africa.
Genetic evidence suggests interbreeding took place with Homo sapiens (anatomically modern humans) between roughly 80,000 and 50,000 years ago in the Middle East, resulting in 1—4% of the genome of people from Eurasia having been contributed by Neanderthals.
The youngest previously reported Neanderthal finds include Hyaena Den (UK), considered older than 30,000 years ago, while the Vindija (Croatia) Neanderthals have been re-dated to between 32,000 and 33,000 years ago. No definite specimens younger than 30,000 years ago have been found; however, evidence of fire by Neanderthals at Gibraltar indicate they may have survived there until 24,000 years ago.
Cro-Magnon or early modern human skeletal remains with Neanderthal traits were found in Lagar Velho (Portugal), dated to 24,500 years ago and controversially interpreted as indications of extensively admixed populations.
Neanderthal stone tools provide further evidence for their presence where skeletal remains have not been found. The last traces of Mousterian culture, a type of stone tools associated with Neanderthals, were found in Gorham's Cave on the remote south-facing coast of Gibraltar. Other tool cultures sometimes associated with Neanderthal include Châtelperronian, Aurignacian, and Gravettian, with the latter extending to 22,000 years ago, the last potential indication of Neanderthal presence.
The new research, directed by the University of Oxford and University College Cork in collaboration with the Laboratory of Prehistory at St Petersburg, Russia, and funded by Science Foundation Ireland is published today in PNAS Online Early Edition. The research centers on Mezmaiskaya Cave, a key site in the northern Caucasus within European Russia, where the team directly dated the fossil of a late Neanderthal infant from the Late Middle Paleolithic layer and a series of associated animal bones. They found that the fossil was 39,700 years old, which implies that Neanderthals did not survive at the cave site beyond this time.
This finding challenges previous claims that late Neanderthals survived until 30,000 years ago in the northern Caucasus, meaning that late Neanderthals and modern humans were not likely to experience any significant period of co-existence.
The new dating evidence throws new light on when the Neanderthals became extinct and why. The research team believes that Neanderthals died out when the modern humans arrived or that they had already become extinct before then, possibly because of climate change, dwindling resources, or other scenarios.
The research suggests that if we are to have accurate chronologies the data needs to be revised, improved and corrected so possible associations between Neanderthal extinctions, dispersals of early modern humans and climatic events can be properly assessed.
For further information: http://www.ox.ac.uk/media/news_stories/2011/111005_1.html
photo source: http://www3.sympatico.ca/davidbscott/home/human4.html