A new analysis of 40 archaeological sites stretching from Russia to Spain indicates that Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans overlapped in Europe over a period of between 2,600 and 5,400 years.
Using an improved radiocarbon dating technique, researchers led by a team from Britain’s University of Oxford found that Neanderthals disappeared from Europe roughly 40,000 years ago.
Our close cousins did not die out abruptly, according to Thomas Higham, the deputy director of the University of Oxford’s radiocarbon accelerator unit, who said the study found that some small populations of Neanderthals probably survived in certain parts of the continent before going extinct.
The millennia in which the Neanderthals and modern humans co-existed in Europe provided “ample time for the transmission of cultural and symbolic behaviors, as well as possible genetic exchanges, between the two groups,” the study, published in the journal Nature, said.
The investigators, who dated samples of stone tools, shell and bone in reaching their conclusions, describe the Europe of the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition as featuring a “mosaic of populations.”
Around 45,000 years ago, prior to this transition process, Europe was mostly dominated by Neanderthals, with small pockets of modern humans existing in certain regions.
That situation was reversed over the course of the ensuing 25 to 250 generations, depending on the geographical area, until the Neanderthals disappeared.
Technical limitations were one of the major challenges for the researchers, “as the radiocarbon method reaches its limit at around 50,000 years ago,” the study said.