Study: Neanderthals, humans lived alongside each other for over 2,000 years

A new modelling research published on Thursday states that Neanderthals and humans co-existed for far longer than once thought. While the study does not reportedly show evidence of direct interaction between humans and Neanderthals around 42,000 years ago, they might have at some point in time.

In fact, Swedish paleogeneticist Svante Paabo’s research that won him the Nobel Prize in medicine last week had revealed that people of European descent and almost everyone across the world has a small percentage of Neanderthal DNA. 

The new study published in the journal Scientific Reports, suggests that Neanderthals and modern humans lived alongside each other in France and northern Spain for somewhere between 1,400 years to 2,900 years, giving them enough time to potentially not only learn from each other but also breed, said a media report, citing the study. 

According to the lead author of the new study and PhD student at Leiden University in the Netherlands, Igor Djakovic, Homo sapiens and Neanderthals “met and integrated in Europe” but are less sure about where exactly. The team of researchers for this study analysed previous fossil evidence which suggested the two species walked the Earth at the same time for at least thousands of years. 

ALSO READ: Sweden’s Svante Paabo wins Nobel Medicine Prize for sequencing Neanderthal DNA

The Leiden-led team also accounted for radiocarbon dating for 56 artefacts, this included 28 each from Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, said the study. It added that these artefacts which included bones and some distinctive stone knives believed to have been made by some last Neanderthals in the region and were collected from 17 archaeological sites across Northern Spain and France. 

The team then used Bayesian modelling to narrow down the potential date ranges, said the report. Djakovic also indicated that chronological analysis of the artefacts showed some similarities between how the artefacts looked like the use and appearance of perforated mammal teeth. 

“This could potentially indicate an exchange of ideas or knowledge,” said the lead author, in the context that sites that linked both species also showed a shift to more standardised blade-like stone tools. While speaking with AFP he also said the technique used for the study uses the “underlying assumption” that we might not discover the first or the last members of any extinct species. 

The modelling estimated that Neanderthals in the region went extinct between 40,870 and 40,457 years ago and modern humans first appeared around 42,500 years ago and never left. Therefore, the study shows an overlap during which the two species lived alongside each other for between 1,400 and 2,900 years. During this time, Djakovic said there are signs of great “diffusion of ideas” by both species. 

According to the lead author, there were “substantial transformations” in the way that people were producing “material culture,” including tools and ornaments. The study estimates that Neanderthal artefacts first appeared between 45,343 and 44,248 years ago and disappeared between 39,894 and 39,798 years ago which was also close to the time that they went extinct. 

ALSO READ: Did we, the modern humans, kill off Neanderthals? A new finding may have answers

Similarly, modern humans or Homo sapiens were estimated to have first appeared somewhere around 42,653 and 42,269 years ago, said the study. The researchers still do not know whether modern humans are responsible for the Neanderthal extinction. 

However, Djakovic said that there was a large population of modern humans and “most people living on Earth have Neanderthal DNA – you could make the argument that they never really went extinct, in a certain sense.” 

He also suggested that it could be that Neanderthals breeding with the larger human population could have led them, over time, to “effectively (be) swallowed into our gene pool,” according to media reports.  

(With inputs from agencies)

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