Neandertal Legacy Scientific Reports

Leiden University

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Real value to research community

The research article ‘Optimal linear estimation models predict 1400-2800 years of overlap between Homo sapiens and Neandertals prior to their disappearance from France and northern Spain’ received 18,819 article downloads in 2022, placing it as one of the top 100 downloaded papers for Scientific Reports in 2022. It also currently shows an Altmetric score of 1115, indicating it has received a considerable amount of online attention.

In 2022 Scientific Reports published more than 21,840 papers, and, according to the journal, a position in the top 100 most downloaded articles is an extraordinary achievement: ‘your science is of real value to the research community’.

How long did we co-exist with Neandertals in western Europe?

We know from fossil evidence recovered from disparate regions of Europe that Neandertals and Homo sapiens may have overlapped for upwards of 6-10 thousand years, at a continental scale, prior to the disappearance of Neandertals from the fossil record. However, it still remains almost entirely unclear in which specific regions of Europe they may have, in fact, co-existed and/or encountered each other. In this article, the researchers show that France and northern Spain may have been an area of prolonged co-existence between these human groups.

D700xvar Distinctive stone knives thought to have been produced by the last Neanderthals in France and northern Spain.
Borrowing from biological conservation sciences

The chances of discovering and dating the first or last appearance of a species, culture, or technology in archaeological and fossil records are extremely slim. For example, the chances of finding and dating the ‘last’ Neanderthal individual are exceptionally slim. More often than not, we rely on the earliest and latest known occurrences of phenomena (species, culture etc.) to infer the time of their appearance and/or disappearance. In this study, the authors used a method adapted from biological conservation science, optimal linear estimation modelling, to account for this gap and estimate the likely duration of overlap between Homo sapiens and Neandertals in France and northern Spain. Using a robust dataset of radiocarbon dates for both Neanderthal individuals and distinct archaeological cultures, they estimate that there may have been upwards of 2,900 years of overlap between these species in the region.

Geographic patterns?

Interestingly, the results also suggest that this period of overlap may have been geographically structured. Spatial and chronological data indicates that Homo sapiens may have first appeared and occupied the southern limits of the study region. At the same time, Neandertals continued to occupy the northern parts of the study region. Such a geographic pattern is consistent with the hypothesis of Homo sapiens arriving in France along the Mediterranean coast.

The question of whether these human groups met and interacted in this region, however, remains to be deciphered. New excavations and analyses, including sedimentary aDNA, will undoubtedly shed new light on this fascinating period of our deep past and on the circumstances surrounding Neandertals' demise in western Europe.

Recent fossil discoveries suggest that Neandertals and Homo sapiens may have co-existed in Europe for as long as 5 to 6000 years. Yet, evidence for their contemporaneity at any regional scale remains highly elusive. In France and northern Spain, a region which features some of the latest directly-dated Neandertals in Europe, Protoaurignacian assemblages attributed to Homo sapiens appear to ‘replace’ Neandertal-associated Châtelperronian assemblages. Using the earliest and latest known occurrences as starting points, Bayesian modelling has provided indication that these occupations may in fact have been partly contemporaneous. The reality, however, is that we are unlikely to ever identify the ‘first’ or ‘last’ appearance of a species or cultural tradition in the archaeological and fossil record. Here, we use optimal linear estimation modelling to estimate the first appearance date of Homo sapiens and the extinction date of Neandertals in France and northern Spain by statistically inferring these ‘missing’ portions of the Protoaurignacian and Châtelperronian archaeological records. Additionally, we estimate the extinction date of Neandertals in this region using a dataset of directly-dated Neandertal fossil remains. Our total dataset consists of sixty-six modernly produced radiocarbon determinations which we recalibrated using the newest calibration curve (IntCal20) to produce updated age ranges. The results suggest that the onset of the Homo sapiens occupation of this region likely preceded the extinction of Neandertals and the Châtelperronian by up to 1400–2900 years. This reaffirms the Bayesian-derived duration of co-existence between these groups during the initial Upper Palaeolithic of this region using a novel independent method, and indicates that our understanding of the timing of these occupations may not be suffering from substantial gaps in the record. Whether or not this co-existence featured some form of direct interaction, however, remains to be resolved.

For more information, read the full article.