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The Latest on Neanderthal Extinctions

Many people find Neanderthals fascinating—though I’m not sure why. But whatever the reason, Neanderthal “enthusiasts” seem to be preoccupied with three primary questions:

  • Did Neanderthals behave like us?
  • Did Neanderthals interbreed with us?
  • Did we cause Neanderthals to go extinct?

A recent study conducted by scientists from Australia, the United Kingdom, France, and Spain addresses the third question by reevaluating the timing of Neanderthal’s disappearance in Iberia (Spain and Portugal). Based on improved carbon-14 dating, the researchers conclude that these hominids had vanished by the time modern humans made their way into this region of the world.1

Similar reevaluations have occurred before. According to the fossil record, Neanderthals appeared around 250,000 years ago and lived throughout Europe, western Asia, and the Middle East. The date of their extinction remains uncertain, but many anthropologists believed Neanderthals persisted until around 28,000 years ago. This date was based on the carbon-14 dating of a single set of Neanderthal remains from the Mezmaiskaya Cave site (Russia) in the Caucasus Mountains. This site sits along the route modern humans took when they made their way into Europe around 40,000 years ago. Based on the age of the Mezmaiskaya Cave specimen alone, scientists argued that Neanderthals and humans coexisted for about 12,000 years in Europe.

A few years ago, however, a study indicated that the Mezmaiskaya Cave specimen was dated improperly. It turns out that more careful use of the carbon-14 dating methodology yields a date older than 40,000 years. Based on this result, it appears as if Neanderthals had already gone extinct before humans arrived in Europe. (I wrote a previous article about the re-dating of the Mezmaiskaya Cave specimen and the implications this work has on the likelihood of human-and-Neanderthal interbreeding.)

Following on the heels of this work is the study that reevaluates the dates of Neanderthal remains from Iberia. Many anthropologists believe this region served as a refuge for the last Neanderthals after they had disappeared elsewhere in the world. This view was based on carbon-14 dating that seemed to indicate Neanderthals survived in Iberia until around 30,000 years ago.

Once again, it turns out that more careful application of carbon-14 dating methods yields dates older than 40,000 years. This means that Neanderthals were extinct before humans made their way to what would become Spain and Portugal. (Listen to a discussion of this discovery on the February 5, 2013, episode of our Science News Flash podcast.)

The bottom line: Neanderthals may well have been extinct before humans began to migrate around the world. If so, then it would have been impossible for humans and Neanderthals to interbreed, as originally predicted by RTB’s biblical human origins model.