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Archaeologists come up with a more precise estimate for how long modern humans and Neanderthals co-existed

Modern humans and Neanderthals may have co-existed in France and Northern Spain for up to 2,900 years until the Neanderthals disappeared. This is what archaeologists from Leiden University and Cambridge University write in a new publication in Scientific Reports.

The research offers important insight into human evolutionary history, as it still remains unclear when and where these populations may have co-existed in Europe, say the researchers, who include Leiden archaeologists Igor Djakovic and Marie Soressi. The overlap dates from 42,000 years ago, when modern humans are believed to have appeared in the region, until about 40,000 years ago, when the Neanderthals are believed to have become extinct.

Distinctive stone knives thought to have been produced by the last Neanderthals in France and northern Spain.

The team analysed a dataset of Neanderthal and modern human artefacts from 17 archaeological sites across France and northern Spain, as well as an additional ten Neanderthal specimens from the same region. All samples had been dated thanks to using new radiocarbon modelling methods
for greater accuracy. 

New estimates with models from biological conservation sciences

The chances of discovering and dating the first or last appearance of a species, culture or technology in the archaeological and fossil records are extremely slim, say the researchers. They therefore used an important method adapted from biological conservation science: optimal linear estimation modelling. Using known dated occurrences for the presence of these groups, they estimate that Homo Sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis may have co-existed in France and northern Spain for between 1,400 and 2,900 years.

Geographic patterns and archaeological evidence

The results, say the researchers, also suggest that this period of overlap may have been geographically structured. Spatial and chronological data indicates that groups of modern humans may have first appeared and occupied the southern limits of the study region, while Neanderthals continued to occupy the northern extensions. Such a geographic pattern is consistent with the hypothesis of Homo sapiens arriving in France along the Mediterranean coast. 

Contact between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals?

The nature and frequency of the interactions between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens remains to be deciphered, but indications may be found within material culture. There is increasing evidence that modern humans and Neanderthals used similar technologies. This lends credence to the idea that this period may have involved a form of interaction between these populations. The researchers believe that new excavations and analyses, including sedimentary aDNA, will undoubtedly shed new light on this fascinating period – and the circumstances surrounding the demise of Neandertals in western Europe.

Optimal linear estimation models predict 1400–2900 years of overlap between Homo sapiens and Neandertals prior to their disappearance from France and northern Spain in Scientific Reports

This paper was produced by the team within the framework of the Neandertal Legacy project

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