Modern humans coexisted with Neanderthals in Europe for up to 3,000 years

LEIDEN, Netherlands — Modern humans coexisted with Neanderthals in Europe for up to 3,000 years, according to new research. An analysis of dozens of artifacts shows they overlapped in France and northern Spain for much longer than previously thought.

Distinctive stone knives suggest that they shared primitive technologies and may even have interbred, according to scientists from the Netherlands and United Kingdom. Computer modelling found the two species lived “side by side” for between 1,400 and 2,900 years.

Lead author Igor Djakovic, a PhD student at Leiden University says it is the first evidence of direct encounters “at any regional scale.” Despite their stocky frames and heavy brows, Neanderthals were remarkably similar to humans and occupied Europe for more than 300,000 years. This is about 200,000 years longer than Homo sapiens have roamed Earth. Evidence of them vanishes around 28,000 years ago.

“This reaffirms the Bayesian-derived duration of coexistence between these groups during the initial Upper Paleolithic of this region using a novel independent method, and indicates that our understanding of the timing of these occupations may not be suffering from substantial gaps in the record,” researchers write in the journal Scientific Reports.

“Whether or not this coexistence featured some form of direct interaction, however, remains to be resolved.”

Recent fossil evidence suggests modern humans and Neanderthals may have coexisted for as long as 5,000 to 6,000 years. However, there is currently little evidence for their coexistence at a local level. It is difficult to establish when the two species first appeared and disappeared in these areas.

Scientists fill in the blanks in evolutionary history

The international team scanned a dataset of 66 Neanderthal and modern human relics from 17 archaeological sites well as an additional 10 Neanderthal specimens. The researchers used complex statistical equations to estimate the date ranges and the populations responsible.

It enabled them to infer the earliest and latest times humans might have been present, filling in missing portions of the archaeological record. They found Neanderthal artifacts first appeared between 45,343 and 44,248 years ago and disappeared between 39,894 and 39,798 years ago.

The date of Neanderthal extinction, based on directly-dated Neanderthal remains, was between 40,870 and 40,457 years ago. The team estimates modern humans first appeared between 42,653 and 42,269 years ago — suggesting coexistence of 1,400 to 2,900 years.

“This is largely consistent with previous estimates, and reaffirms the duration of coexistence between these groups during the early western European Upper Paleolithic,” study authors report.

Between 40 and 50,000 years ago, the demographic landscape of Europe transformed as modern humans replaced Neanderthals — with them disappearing from the fossil record. Recent evidence from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and south-eastern France indicates the first arrivals occurred at least 45,000 years ago and possibly as far back as 54,000 years.

“At a continental scale, this would suggest a possible overlap of upwards of 14,000 years between these human species,” researchers write. Yet, little is known about the nature, timing, and specific geographic areas of interaction between Neandertals and Homo sapiens during this critical period in human evolutionary history.”

“For example, genetic data has shown there to be notable variation in the presence of recent Neandertal ancestry in early AMHs in Europe and—although the sample size is limited—it is interesting to note that no late European Neandertals have yet exhibited evidence of a recent modern human ancestor,” the team continues.

“One possible explanation for this pattern is that, at least in some regions, the first AMHs to colonize Europe may not have directly encountered Neandertals.”

Up to two percent of DNA carried by Europeans is inherited from Neanderthals, who interbred with their ancient ancestors.

“Taken together, these observations strengthen the proposition that the initial Upper Paleolithic in this region likely involved a period of coexistence between Neandertals and Homo sapiens,” study authors conclude.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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