The story of the demise of the Neanderthals and their replacement by modern Homo sapiens in Europe became a little more clear a couple of weeks ago but the clarifying picture is beginning to look bad for us moderns humans.
It's beginning to look like we were one of the first invasive species; one which was not just a disinterested observer of the demise of our cousin species, nor even one which was opportunistically moving into territory formerly occupied by a declining species on its way to evolutionary extinction in a cul-de-sac from which it could not reverse, but one which was actively participating in the extinction and ethnic cleansing of another type of human being.
Neanderthals had been around in Europe and Western Asia for about 300,000 years, hunting big game with stone tools and probably living as small, isolated groups. They had survived the last Ice Age and may well have replaced or evolved out of H. heidelbergensis or even H. antecessor whose footprints have very probably been found in England. Somewhere along the line Neanderthals and their eastern cousins, the Denisovans, seem to have gone their separate ways as the Denisovans moved into southeastern Asia.
They left their artifacts known as 'Mousterian' and 'Châtelperronian'. The Uluzzian artefacts formerly attributed to late Neanderthals but have now been reclassified as H. sapiens artefacts. It is these artefacts which now give us a clue to the precise sequence of events as moderns moved into Europe. Tom Higham of the University of Oxford and his colleagues, using improved dating techniques, have carried out a detailed analysis and dating of artefacts of these three types. What they found has caused us to revise not only the timing of the demise of Neanderthals but also our part in it.
The timing of Neanderthal disappearance and the extent to which they overlapped with the earliest incoming anatomically modern humans (AMHs) in Eurasia are key questions in palaeoanthropology. Determining the spatiotemporal relationship between the two populations is crucial if we are to understand the processes, timing and reasons leading to the disappearance of Neanderthals and the likelihood of cultural and genetic exchange. Serious technical challenges, however, have hindered reliable dating of the period, as the radiocarbon method reaches its limit at ~50,000 years ago. Here we apply improved accelerator mass spectrometry 14C techniques to construct robust chronologies from 40 key Mousterian and Neanderthal archaeological sites, ranging from Russia to Spain. Bayesian age modelling was used to generate probability distribution functions to determine the latest appearance date. We show that the Mousterian ended by 41,030–39,260 calibrated years BP (at 95.4% probability) across Europe. We also demonstrate that succeeding ‘transitional’ archaeological industries, one of which has been linked with Neanderthals (Châtelperronian), end at a similar time. Our data indicate that the disappearance of Neanderthals occurred at different times in different regions. Comparing the data with results obtained from the earliest dated AMH sites in Europe, associated with the Uluzzian technocomplex, allows us to quantify the temporal overlap between the two human groups. The results reveal a significant overlap of 2,600–5,400 years (at 95.4% probability). This has important implications for models seeking to explain the cultural, technological and biological elements involved in the replacement of Neanderthals by AMHs. A mosaic of populations in Europe during the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition suggests that there was ample time for the transmission of cultural and symbolic behaviours, as well as possible genetic exchanges, between the two groups.
The timing and spatiotemporal patterning of Neanderthal disappearance
Tom Higham, Katerina Douka, et al; Nature 512, 306–309 (21 August 2014) doi:10.1038/nature13621
Until recently, I and many with me had thought that Neanderthals survived until 30,000 years ago, or perhaps even slightly later. The new dates make it clear that they disappeared 10,000 years earlier.It had previously been believed that Neanderthals had lingered on in parts of their range until as recently as 23,000 years ago. It is now clear they they had substantially disappeared by about 39,000 years ago and had been replaced almost immediately by moderns. However, the process of replacement did not happen overnight. Both moderns and Neanderthals co-existed for some 5000 years, long enough for occasional interbreeding to occur, judging by the fact that modern Western Europeans and their descendants have 1-4% Neanderthal genes.
Svante Pääbo, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany
It's interesting to speculate about what form the various religious creation myths would have taken if there had been two or more distinct species of humans when they were being formulated in the Bronze Age. Would the creator god have created just one species as its special creation or would Neanderthals too have souls and be in need of forgiveness and redemption for something that not only they hadn't done but which had been done by two of another species? Would there have been taboos against intermarriage and licence to buy and sell Neanderthals as slaves and concubines? Or would they be condemned as Satanic creations; parody human created in poor imitation of the image of the creator god?
It's not entirely clear that we actively exterminated Neanderthals everywhere but we certainly quickly outnumbered them and moved into their territory, hunting the same species they hunted and probably using the same shelters they previously used. This would have pushed Neanderthals into less and less habitable areas and broken them up into small isolated groups susceptible to loss of essential skills when one member of the band died. Tool-making and hunting techniques, knowledge of medicinal plants and even knowledge of the areas and locations of permanent water sources can easily be lost in cultures where life is short and numbers are low.
But whatever the causes, it seems to have taken moderns a mere 5,000 years to exterminate Neanderthals from the whole of Europe and Western Asia for all practical purposes, though they may possibly have lingered on for longer in, for example, Gibraltar and southern Iberia. A species which had pioneered living in colder, wetter, cloudier and probably mostly heavily forested Euro-Asia compared to the species evolving in the plains of East Africa or on the Ethiopian highlands, and which may have, through interbreeding, enables us Europeans to short-circuit evolution and acquire adaptive changes in a few thousand years what it had taken Neanderthals 300,000 years to evolve, was exterminated in maybe as little as 5,000 years.
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