Neanderthal dating at the Museum of Natural History in New York.

Were Archaic Homo Sapiens alone in Europe?

Neanderthal dating at the Museum of Natural History in New York.
Neanderthal dating at the Museum of Natural History in New York. Photo by Neil R.

New dating shows that some Neanderthal remains are a lot older than had been previously thought. It’s led to a newsflap with the suggestion that Neanderthal sites had already been deserted before modern humans moved in to Europe. If you want to go to the source the full paper is in PNAS. However, if you’re planning a commemoration of the event, you won’t want to fix on a date quite yet.

Geoff Smith has gathered some dissenting opinions. Elsewhere John Hawks explains why there’s still room for doubt about the findings. One reason for the debate is that dating is a major part of archaeology, because we look to see if artefacts are before or after each other in date, or if they come from around the same time. The new dates change what we thought we knew about Neanderthal settlement in the Caucasus. At the same time archaeological isn’t just about gathering as much stuff as you can and arranging it in date order. It’s also about how remains relate to each other. Certain tool types are common with Neanderthal activity, so for some places if you find a lot of Middle Palaeolithic tools, but no Neanderthal bone. Pulling together different strands of independent evidence, at the moment it seems more likely that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens did co-exist, not least the genetic evidence for interbreeding. It’s hard to see how interbreeding could happen if one of the partners wasn’t there at the time.

Photo: Homo Neanderthalensis: 50,000 Years Ago by Neil R. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC licence.

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Alun Salt

Alun Salt is an ancient historian / archaeologist based in the University of Leicester, UK. His PhD thesis was an archaeoastronomical analysis of Greek temple alignments in Sicily. He also has an MPhil in World Archaeology. His research interests include ancient technology, cosmology and colonisation processes. He is currently dividing his time between a few part-time jobs in the university and at the Annals of Botany.

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