The timing and spatiotemporal patterning of Neanderthal disappearance
Part of abstract: 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 palaeoanthropology1, 2. 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.
Did anatomically modern humans coexist with Neanderthals? Attempts to answer this question are complicated by the fact that conventional methods of radiocarbon dating become unreliable at just about the time in question: as sample ages approach 50,000 years little carbon-14 is left and it is difficult to obtain accurate measurements. Tom Higham and colleagues have worked to improve sample processing and accelerator-mass-spectrometry radiocarbon dating in order to construct a robust chronology based on the last appearances of the Mousterian tool culture — considered diagnostic for the presence of Neanderthals — from forty sites from Spain to Russia. The results indicate that Neanderthals disappeared at different times in different regions, with a significant overlap with incoming modern humans for around 2,600 to 5,400 years. Rather than a rapid model of replacement, this work suggests a complex picture in which cultural and biological interchange could have occurred between the two groups across a period of several thousand years.