It was in 1886 that researchers first discovered human bones in the cave of Spy (Belgium). Bones belonging to the last survivors of Neanderthal man in Europe. And a new dating of these bones today suggests precisely that Neanderthals disappeared from our regions earlier than researchers thought.
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The Cave of Spy (Belgium) is what researchers call a remarkable Paleolithic site. In particular, they found Neanderthal fossils. And not just any since they would belong to the last survivors of thespecies in Europe. But if the first studies dated back to only 24,000 years ago, new work now estimate that they date back at least 40,600 years. Even at 44,200 years!
The difference, according to the researchers, is the precision with which they were able to prepare their samples. Because let us remember that all living beings absorb carbone. Of carbone 14, for what interests us here. The latter, in fact, disintegrates over time. When the living being dies, it stops absorbing carbon and what remains of carbon-14 at the time of the discovery of its remains provides information on when it lived.
Better understand Neanderthals
More specifically, the researchers who date the bones carbon-14 extract and analyze the part made of collagen. And here they have developed a robust method that focuses on the building blocks of collagen: the amino acids. Especially the ones that they could be sure were part of the collagen.
According to the researchers, the Neanderthals would therefore have disappeared from northern Europe much earlier than previously thought. Especially since dating on other sites has given similar results. Why is this important? Because having a precise idea of the moment of the disappearance of Neanderthals is a key step in better understanding its nature and capabilities, as well as the reason (s) why it ultimately died out as our own ancestors thrived.
Spanish Neanderthals reportedly disappeared much sooner than expected
An Anglo-Spanish study claims, using a new dating technique, that Neanderthals have disappeared from the peninsula Iberian at least 10,000 years earlier than expected. The encounter with modern man would therefore have been impossible. Big news that will change the content of history books? Rather a false debate for Marylène Patou-Mathis, prehistorian interviewed by Futura-Sciences.
Article by Janlou Chaput published on 05/06/2013
- A file to know everything about theNeanderthal man
Before us, Neanderthals. This cousin, almost our brother, shares with us 1 to 4% of genes. But about 30,000 years ago, for reasons still debated, these peoples disappeared from the face of the world. Some paleontologists consider that the last representatives of this human species have become extinct on the Iberian Peninsula, today comprising the territory of Spain and Portugal.
But according to European researchers, led by Thomas Higham of the University of Oxford, the Neanderthals who populated this region could have disappeared at least 10,000 years earlier than expected. Using a new technique of carbon 14 dating, they showed that the prehistoric sites tested were not 35,000 years old, but rather 45,000 to 50,000 years old.
Neanderthals aged 10,000 years by carbon 14
How can this radioisotope, known for the precision of its dating on a scale of 50,000 years, provide such different data? It should be understood that the bones passed through the detector may have been contaminated by an external source of carbon after the individual’s death. This then distorts the data.
By ultrafiltration, the authors explain in Pnas have developed a more precise dating method. They wanted to carry out their analysis on 215 bones found in 11 Neanderthal sites on the Iberian Peninsula, dating from around 35,000 years ago. Unfortunately, their ambitions have been reduced. Only eight bones contained enough collagen to be dated precisely. All came not from 11, but from only two sites, located in altitude: Jarama and Zafarraya.
One of these bones, thought to be 33,300 years old, actually belonged to a dead individual 46,700 years ago. Others are even 50,000 years old. Some believe that the first modern men reached these lands 42,000 years ago. Any meeting with Neanderthals in the area is therefore impossible. Would previous studies have underestimated the age of the death of Neanderthal ? Should we question human prehistory?
The last Neanderthals not necessarily Spanish
No, proclaim Marylène Patou-Mathis, research director at the CNRS and specialist in this Hominini at National Museum of Natural History. “I have no doubts about the dates put forward by these researchers, but how is it possible to generalize on the scale of a territory from only two sites? A local analysis cannot provide a global answer ”, remarks the prehistorian. Especially since these caves are located at high altitude. They could very well have been abandoned at the time when the ice Age was hitting Europe for warmer regions, which also promotes the breakdown of bone collagen and complicates dating.
“We must also stop systematically believing that the last Neanderthals lived in Spain, she continues. Some of them have been shown to live in Croatia or Crimea [péninsule ukrainienne, NDLR], less than 35,000 years ago. This work therefore does not call into question the date of disappearance of Neanderthals. »
homo sapiens exonerated
As for the question of the meeting between the two human species of the time, the prehistorian has a precise opinion. ” There have been hybridization around -70,000 to -80,000 years, in the Middle East or the surrounding area. Then modern humans migrated to the west and were able, on their way, to meet some Neanderthal populations, especially in the Balkans. But, it seems to me indeed unlikely that the two species crossed in Spain, even if they would have lived at the same time in Europe: the regions are so large and the groups so small! “ In conclusion, this study, as interesting and credible as it is, does not seem to upset the history of the relationships that may have been maintained homo sapiens and Neanderthals. And does not change the recent history of human evolution.
Nevertheless, it could provide elements which justify that modern humans are not responsible for the disappearance of Neanderthals. “Our ‘cousin’ did not disappear overnight. It is a process that took time, and there is evidence that these human populations were already on the decline even before our modern ancestors arrived in Europe ”, points out Marylène Patou-Mathis. Phew! We knew homo sapiens very good at causing the disappearance of species, but in this case, the facts seem to clear it.
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