Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Neanderthals and Modern Humans Coexisted

Neanderthal groups lived alongside modern humans for several thousand years, according to an international team of scientists that has overturned previous theories about the extinction of Neanderthals.

The team used a new radiocarbon dating method on about 200 samples of bone, charcoal and shell from 40 key archeological sites across Europe, and found that Neanderthals across Europe did not all die out at one time as modern humans appeared. “The two groups lived in neighbouring regions for several thousand years,” said Dr Rachel Wood of The Australian National University. “They would have had plenty of time to interact.”

Recent genetic studies have shown that non-African humans interbred with Neanderthals, but there was little evidence to show where or how often this occurred. However this latest study, published in Nature, suggests that populations of Neanderthals and modern humans overlapped in Europe around 40,000 years ago for 2600–5400 years.

The new information clearly dates stone tools and artefacts attributed to Neanderthals, known as the Mousterian industry in regions of France, Germany and northern Spain, as younger than the Italian Uluzzian industry, which contains teeth from modern humans.

“We can’t tell yet whether this overlap led to humans and Neanderthals interacting,” Wood said. “It does seem as though there was a complex cultural and biological mosaic which may have allowed the two species to meet in Europe.”

Lead author Prof Thomas Higham of The University of Oxford agreed: “The chronology suggests Neanderthals may have survived in dwindling pockets of Europe before they became extinct”.