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Humans and Neanderthals Cohabitated in Europe, New Study Finds

Homo Neanderthalensis Adult Male Reconstruction
Homo neanderthalensis adult male. Reconstruction based on Shanidar 1 by John Gurche for the Human Origins Program, NMNH. Date 225,000 to 28,000 years. Credit: John Gurche and Chip Clark, CC-ZERO. / Public Domain Wikimedia Commons

Neanderthals and humans cohabitated in Europe for over two thousand years according to a new study. They may have even bred together and exchanged ideas.

This is the finding of Swedish paleogeneticist Svante Paabo, who won the Nobel Prize last week. What Paabo discovered in his research is that Europeans and most of the world’s population all seem to have a percentage of neanderthal DNA.

The revelation is a marked difference from previous studies. UN5IL showed there was little interaction between the two even though they lived at the same time on the same continent.

It is not disputed, however, as facial reconstruction has not only shown what Neanderthals look like but also how much their physiognomy corresponds to our own.

A Neanderthal man’s face was recently reconstructed by a team of experts with his image going viral all over the world as people recognized his good humor and magnetic personality. Credit: Facebook/Archaeology Magazine

Neanderthals and humans cohabitated in Europe

New modeling research techniques show that Neanderthals and humans evidently lived together in France and northern Spain for almost 2,900 years. The study was not able to prove when or if they definitely interacted, but Svante Paabo’s DNA findings confirm that this was highly probable.

The lead author of the new study was Ph.D. student Igor Djakovic from Leiden University. What his team learned was that Neanderthals and humans “met and integrated in Europe, but we have no idea in which specific regions this actually happened.”

Range of Homo neanderthalensis
Range of Homo neanderthalensis. Credit: Nilenbert, Nicolas Perrault III. CC-BY-SA-3.0. / Wikimedia Commons

In search of the truth, Leiden’s team, therefore, began analyzing the radiocarbon of fifty-six various artifacts, half of which were related to Neanderthals while the other half was related to the human species. These they collected from various sites across the regions of northern Spain and France. The samples included bones and stone knives that Neanderthals may have made.

By using what is called Bayesian modeling techniques, they were consequently able to pinpoint a more specific range of dates. Combined with the newest modeling techniques of  optimal linear estimation, they were able to more definitively identify the region in which they lived.

What they discovered is that Neanderthals from that region became extinct sometime between 40,870 and 40,457 years ago. The first humans appeared around 42,500 years ago. Such findings indicate that they lived with Neanderthals at the same time in the same place for about 1,400 to 2,900 years.

These findings correspond to recent discoveries in Israel which showed that humans and Neanderthals also formed communities there over fifty thousand years ago. Former studies of fossils have also revealed that a certain amount of interaction took place in the Near East from Iraq to Africa.

Substantial Transformations

The likelihood that humans and Neanderthals shared ideas and cohabitated is indeed interesting.

In Djakovic’s words, there were “substantial transformations in the way that people [were] producing material culture” during that period. This included tools and ornaments. There was also a significant transformation in the artifices the Neanderthals made. With time, they began to resemble those of humans. Yet, more surprising is the idea that they seemingly mated.

Stone tools, Neanderthal, Bad Urach
Stone tools, Neanderthal, Bad Urach

If humans and Neanderthals did mate, then it might be what led to their extinction, Djokovic claimed. That reason is that with breeding, over time, humans might have “effectively swallowed [Neanderthals] into our gene pool.” They nevertheless remain with us today as part of our DNA.

As Djokovic stated, “When you combine that with what we know now—that most people living on Earth have Neanderthal DNA—you could make the argument that they never really went extinct, in a certain sense.”

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