New analysis of remains found in a Belgium cave revealed that Neanderthals disappeared from Europe thousands of years earlier than previously thought. Bones found in Spy Cave were believed to have belonged to some of the last surviving members of the Neanderthal species to have inhabited Europe.
Previous analysis of the remains estimated that the individual lived around 24,000 years ago, but new studies conducted by a team of experts from Belgium, Britain, and Germany have revealed that they were instead from between 44,200 and 40,600 years ago. This means that Neanderthals vanished from Europe thousands of years earlier.
Furthermore, they dated two other remains found at two other locations in Belgium (Fonds-de-Foret and Engis) and they found that they were very close in age. Gregory Abrams, who is from the Scladina Cave Archaeological Centre in Belgium and the co-lead author of the study, explained this further, “Dating all these Belgian specimens was very exciting as they played a major role in the understanding and the definition of Neanderthals,” adding, “Almost two centuries after the discovery of the Neanderthal child of Engis, we were able to provide a reliable age.” (A picture of a jaw found in Spy Cave can be seen here.)
Thibaut Deviese, who is from the University of Oxford and Aix-Marseille University as well as the co-lead author of the study, stated that he and his colleagues used a better method to examine to the bones but still relied on radiocarbon dating techniques. While all living creatures absorb carbon (which includes carbon-14) from food and the atmosphere, the process stops when they die; therefore, the amount of carbon found in the remains gives experts a better idea of when they were alive.
Deviese explained that the environment where they were buried as well as glues used at museums can contaminate the remains so they took samples of the collagen in the bone samples to look for amino acids that wouldn’t have had any contamination.
One example of contamination was a shoulder bone that was believed to have been 28,000 years old, but further analysis revealed that it was highly contaminated with bovine DNA which could have been caused by glue from cattle bones used to preserve the remains; therefore, the dating was incorrect.
Correct dating is extremely important in understanding the history of Neanderthals and how they lived. For instance, several tools have been found that indicated Neanderthals were much smarter than previously thought; however, if they really did disappear from Europe thousands of years earlier, further studies will have to be conducted in order to determine whether or not the tools were actually made by them.
The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences where it can be read in full.