No, We Didn’t Meet Neanderthals in Belgium 37,000 Years Ago

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Maxila and mandible of a late Neanderthal from Spy Cave in Belgium.
Maxila and mandible of a late Neanderthal from Spy Cave in Belgium.Credit: Patrick Semal RBINS

When the last Neanderthals died out is a mystery, and remains so. But in a new paper published Monday in PNAS, a team of scientists revisited Neanderthal remains found in Spy Cave, Belgium, and deduced that they didn’t survive until 37,000 years ago after all, let alone to 28,000 years, another postulated date that had resulted from previous dating techniques. They died about 44,200 to 40,600 years ago.

If the original dating had been accurate, the Spy Cave Neanderthals would have been among the last survivors of the species in Europe. However, the previous dating had been skewed by contamination with glue made from latter-day cows, concluded the multidisciplinary team of international researchers, following redating at Oxford’s Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit.

The discrepancy between the original dating of some of the Belgian Neanderthal remains and the new calculation is as much as 5,000 years, the scientists say.

Aside from Spy Cave, the team also reanalyzed Neanderthals from two other Belgian sites, Fonds-de-Forêt and Engis. They proved to be much the same age as the Spy specimens, said Grégory Abrams of the Scladina Cave Archaeological Centre in Belgium.

What had been the source of error? The previous dating, of a scapula identified as Neanderthal in Spy Cave, was heavily contaminated with modern bovine DNA and thus produced a date of about 28,000 years, which was shockingly young.

The scientists suggest that conservators had attempted to preserve the ancient bone using glue made of cow bones. The new technique excludes organic material from contaminants such as modern bone glue, the team explains.

The information is helpful because it supports our understanding of the relationship between Homo sapiens and the Neanderthals, which is hard to elucidate without knowing when the latter died out, Prof. Tom Higham of Oxford points out.

“The results suggest again that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals probably overlapped in different parts of Europe and there must have been opportunities for possible cultural and genetic exchange,” he said.

In fact, multiple avenues of research indicate that Neanderthals and humans did meet, did mate and, at least at the genetic level, certainly did influence one another. Traces of Neanderthal DNA has even been associated with both susceptibility to COVID-19, and to resistance to it, and to other health/immune-related conditions.

It bears adding that the Neanderthals lived chiefly in western and central Europe, and spread southward to the Levant, including to Israel, about 70,000 years ago.

There is little question that Neanderthals and humans met in what is today Israel: Specimens of hybridization have been found, and a recent paper claimed to have identified a tooth found in the West Bank in proximity to tools typical of Homo sapiens – as Neanderthal. In other words, that had been thought to be the exclusive fief of Homo sapiens.

Then, about 50,000 years ago, the Neanderthals died out in what is today Israel. They would hang on some more years in what is today Iraq. And just to throw a little more mud onto the picture, it seems Homo sapiens were exiting Africa for the Levant and onward toward Eurasia a cool 200,000 years ago, much earlier than had once been thought.

They certainly made it to Greece, and these ancient modern humans could have been the very first to meet and shake hands with the Neanderthals. Maybe they could even say hello – according to recent research, back then, Neanderthals had language, and maybe so did we.

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