Recent fossil evidence suggests that modern humans (Homo sapiens) and Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) may have co-existed in Europe for as long as five or six millennia before the latter became extinct. However, until recently, not much evidence was found regarding their co-existence at a regional level, making it rather difficult to reliably establish when the two species first appeared and disappeared in these regions.
Now, a team of researchers from Leiden University in the Netherlands has found that, in France and northern Spain, modern humans may have co-existed with Neanderthals for between 1,400 and 2,900 years before the Neanderthals disappeared.
The scientists analyzed a dataset of 56 modern human and Neanderthal artefacts from seventeen archaeological sites across France and northern Spain, together with other ten Neanderthal specimens from the same areas. All the samples that were collected were radiocarbon dated. Then, the experts used Optimal Linear Estimation and Bayesian probability modeling to estimate the date ranges for these samples, in order to infer the earliest and latest dates at which these groups of hominins had been present in those regions.
The analyses revealed that the Neanderthal artefacts first appeared between 45,343 and 44,248 years ago, and disappeared between 39,894 and 39,798 years ago. Since Neanderthal extinction occurred between 40,870 and 40,457 years ago, and modern humans were estimated to emerge between 42,653 and 42,269 years ago, the scientists concluded that the two species co-existed in these regions for between 1,400 and 2,900 years. Nevertheless, it is not yet clear how or whether modern humans and Neanderthals interacted during their period of co-existence.
“[Our] observations strengthen the proposition that the initial Upper Palaeolithic in this region likely involved a period of co-existence between Neandertals and Homo sapiens. The precise nature of this co-existence, however, remains to be resolved,” the authors concluded.
The study is published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.
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