Neanderthal remains from Belgium are thousands of years older than thought

Neanderthals disappeared from North West Europe earlier than thought.


Understanding when Neanderthals disappeared is a hotly debated topic. Fossil remains from Belgium have long puzzled scientists.

In a recent study, scientists used a procedure more efficient in removing contamination and ancient genomic analysis and showed that the remains from the critical site of Spy Cave in Belgium are are thousands of years older than previously reported.

The study conducted by a multidisciplinary team of international scientists reveals that the fossils that remain must be up to 5,000 years older in some instances. Fossil remains suggested a date of approximately 37,000 years ago, which would place them among the latest surviving Neanderthals in Europe. But sample contamination might have affected these estimates. The team was based in Oxford’s Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit.

Most of the dates obtained in this new study are much older than those obtained previously on the same bone samples—up to 5,000 years older in some instances.

The study suggests that re-evaluating the timing of Neanderthal disappearance in Northwest Europe suggests that Neanderthals disappeared from the region 44,200-40,600 years ago. It was much earlier than previously estimated.

Scientists found a Neanderthal scapula from the Spy Cave that had been produced around 28,000 years ago. At the time of discovery, it was significantly contaminated with modern bovine DNA. Scientists think that the bone had been preserved with glue prepared from cattle bones.

Using an advanced method called liquid chromatography separation, scientists could extract a single amino acid from the Neanderthal remains for Dating. Doing so allowed the scientists to date the bones and exclude carbon from contaminants reliably.

Oxford Professor Tom Higham says, “Dating is crucial in archaeology, without a reliable framework of chronology, we can’t be confident in understanding the relationships between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens as we moved into Europe 45,000 years ago and they began to disappear. That’s why these methods are so exciting because they provide much more accurate and reliable dates. The results suggest again that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals probably overlapped in different parts of Europe, and there must have been opportunities for possible cultural and genetic exchange.”

Lead author Dr. Thibaut Devièse, says, “The new chemistry methods we have applied in the case of the Spy and other Belgian sites provide the only means by which we can decontaminate these key Neanderthal bones for Dating and check that contaminants have been fully removed. This gives us confidence in the new ages we obtained for these important specimens.”

Grégory Abrams of the Scladina Cave Archaeological Centre in Belgium says“We also (re)dated Neanderthal specimens from two additional Belgian sites, Fonds-de-Forêt and Engis, and obtained similar ages than those from Spy. Dating all these Belgian specimens was very exciting as they played a major role in the understanding and the definition of Neanderthals. Almost two centuries after the discovery of the Neanderthal child of Engis, we were able to provide a reliable age.”

The team is now analyzing archaeological evidence, such as bone tools, to further refine our understanding of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens’ cultural transition in this region.

Journal Reference:

  1. Thibaut Devièse et al. Reevaluating the timing of Neanderthal disappearance in Northwest Europe. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2022466118
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