Neanderthals’ disappearance from the earth may have occurred 10,000 years earlier than experts thought based on new fossil dating methods.
Based on fossil records, Neanderthals were big-boned hunters with big brains and began appearing more than 230,000 years ago. The cousins of modern humans occupied regions from Siberia to Spain and were thought to have expired around 30,000 years ago.
According to National Geographic, evidence suggests that modern humans contributed to the extinction of Neanderthals. Scholars have long debated whether Neanderthals went extinct due to other factors or because humans helped to eradicate them.
The new fossil dating study was published in the journal Nature and was written by Tom Higham of the United Kingdom’s University of Oxford. Higham’s research suggests that Neanderthals lived in isolated patches before they died out across western Europe. Arrival sites of the first modern humans seem to have overlapped these regions at the same time.
The study also suggests that Neanderthal populations declined around 40,000 to 45,000 years ago. Researchers came to this conclusion after they studied samples of shell, animal bone, and charcoal from 40 different sites, including Neanderthal caves. According to Newser, the research team took collagen from the bones to avoid contamination, as younger molecules can contaminate samples and leave radiocarbon dating unreliable.
The improved dating methods suggested that the fossils were around 10,000 years older than previous dating methods suggested.
However, not all scientists are convinced that the date of Neanderthal extinction is accurate. Some paleontologists are wary of the results because tools were tested in the study rather than just bones of Neanderthals, and some scientists are unsure whether the tools belonged to Neanderthals, homo sapiens, or possibly both. Neanderthals may have learned to use stone tools in conjunction with the arrival of humans.
Paleontologist Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St. Louis called some parts of the study “wrong” and did not believe that the samples were from Neanderthal layers at research sites. He believes that the Neanderthals last known refuge was in Spain, and the new study disagrees with this belief.
In an email, Trinkaus said, “This is nothing new or newsworthy. We have long known that the disappearance of Neanderthals was a long, slow and complex process.”
It has been suggested that a large volcano that erupted in Italy could have hurt populations of Neanderthals and homo sapiens. This could have been followed by a cooling climate, which could have been a death sentence to the few remaining Neanderthal populations trying to compete with humans.
“In ecology when you see a species that is isolated and losing genetic diversity, you are seeing one that is often on the way out,” Higham explained. “I think most of my colleagues would agree that having modern humans around played some role in the disappearance of the Neanderthals.”