‘Neanderthals may not have met modern humans’
Last Updated: Sunday, May 15, 2011, 09:28
Washington: Neanderthals might have died off thousands of years earlier than previously thought, suggesting that they weren't around to mingle with modern humans, a new study has claimed.

It's believed that Neanderthals might have interbred with our ancestors before they all died off and thus many of we possess their genes. But it remains uncertain how long modern humans interacted with them as when and how they went extinct is still debated.

The latest study by an international team of scientists focused on Mezmaiskaya Cave -- a key site in the northern Caucasus Mountains within European Russia.

This region "is seen by many as a crossroads for the movement of modern humans into the wider Russian plains," said researcher Tom Higham at the University of Oxford in England.

"The extinction of Neanderthals here is, therefore, an indicator we think, of when that first probably happened," Higham was quoted as saying by LiveScience.

The researchers, who analysed a fossil of a late Neanderthal infant there, found that it was 39,700 years old.

"For some years now we thought that the Mezmaiskaya Neanderthals survived until 30,000 years ago, but now we know that they actually became extinct by around 40,000 years ago, so there was no chance of modern humans who first arrived to the region 4,000 to 5,000 years later to meet them," said Ron Pinhasi of University College Cork in Ireland.

"This fits well with results of other teams from the southern Caucasus," he said, adding that past research on Neanderthals may have underestimated their age due to contamination with later materials, giving the erroneous impression they survived much longer than they actually did.

Based on this new data, "we are suggesting that Neanderthals may have went extinct in Europe by this date (40,000 years ago)," Pinhasi said.

However, Clive Finlayson, an evolutionary biologist at the Gibraltar Museum in Spain, said: "All this paper shows is that Neanderthals lived somewhere in the Caucasus about 40,000 years ago."

"It doesn't mean they went extinct then," said Finlayson, whose team has recently found clusters of Neanderthals that might have lasted until as late as 24,000 years ago.

"We have to be careful with some radiocarbon dates that, on revision, appear older, which we knew already. But this doesn't mean all dates are bad," he said.

In response, Pinhasi did note there may have been sites "in which Neanderthals survived perhaps even as late as 24,000 years ago".

"More systematic dating and careful selection of materials to date is necessary in order to obtain true ages of key events such as Neanderthal extinction," he added.

The scientists detailed their findings online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


First Published: Sunday, May 15, 2011, 09:28

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