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A Younger Neanderthal



Dating of Bones Changes Picture of Humans in Europe

The remains of Neanderthals were found in this cave at Vindija, Croatia in the 1890s. Modern humans are known to have lived about 120 miles away, but questions remain about how and even if the two species of hominids interacted.
(Croatian Academy of Sciences)

By Kenneth Chang
Oct. 25 New dating of Neanderthal bones indicates that the evolutionary cousins of modern humans survived later in central Europe than had been thought and shared the continent with their successors for several millennia.

Anthropologists had thought that Neanderthals had disappeared in an east-to-west pattern across Europe but bones dated to just 28,000 years ago from Vindija, Croatia in central Europe refutes that idea. (

     The finding, reported in Tuesday's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, overturns the traditional notion that as modern humans spread from Africa and the Middle East into Europe, they drove the supposedly more primitive Neanderthals westward and eventually to extinction.

European Neighbors
"Into that picture come these Croatian dates which show there were Neanderthals living in the hills of Croatia 3,000 years after there were early modern humans established in Germany, a couple hundred kilometers away," says Erik Trinkaus, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis and one of the paper's authors
     The overlap in time and place provides an opportunity for interbreeding between the two species of hominids and the possibility that Neanderthal genes persist to the present.
     "Neanderthals may have been driven to extinction in some areas," Trinkaus says, "or they may have been absorbed into early modern human populations in others,"
     Neanderthals, primitive hominids with prominent brows, coarse jaws and short legs, are thought to have arisen in Africa more than 250,000 years ago. They are thought to have appeared in Europe about 120,000 years ago and eventually to have been replaced by modern humans.
     Modern humans arrived in Europe at least 32,000 years ago and possibly as early as 36,000 years ago.

Newer Dating

A jaw bone, about 3½ inches long, one of the Vindija Neanderthal bones that was dated. (Croatian Academy of Sciences)

Trinkaus and his collaborators examined Neanderthal bones originally dug up from a Croatian cave a century ago. Radiocarbon dating on pill-size samples from two skulls put their age at 28,000 years old. The Neanderthal specimens had earlier been dated at 45,000 years using a less accurate method.
     "It just makes the picture of the relationship between modern humans and Neanderthals far more complicated than it was before," comments Jan Simek, head of the anthropology department at University of Tennessee, Knoxville. "You're not talking about one advanced form and an animal. They were all people."
     The notion that Neanderthals and humans interbred remains a controversial one, however. "You could argue that they lived apart in the same area and threw rocks at each other instead of genes," says Clark Howell of the University of California, Berkeley.

Europeans a Mixed Breed?
Trinkaus and lead author Fred Smith of Northern Illinois University point to 25,000-year-old remains of a human child found in Portugal whose legs, arms, teeth and skull show Neanderthal-like characteristics.
     "Our interpretation of that … these populations were intermixed and these traits persisted over a number of generations," Trinkaus says. "It tells us that interbreeding took place."
     Smith and Trinkaus say there are body features in bones from 30,000-year-old human specimens that suggest a Neanderthal contribution to the European gene pool.
     Others such as Howell say the characteristics in the skeletons that Trinkaus and Smith attribute to Neanderthal are within the range of normal variations for humans.
     Tests on Neanderthal DNA have suggested it is too different to be human, but that assertion is also controversial.
     There is as yet no definitive evidence of Neanderthals and humans being at exactly the same place at the same time.
     "We don't have evidence of them directly meeting or coming into contact with each other in Croatia or southern Germany," Trinkaus says. "But we know they weren't all that far apart at the same time."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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"You're not talking about one advanced form and an animal. They were all people."

Jan Simek, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

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