Science

Neanderthal remains in Belgium thought to be 37,000 years old are actually thousands of years OLDER

Neanderthal remains discovered in a cave in Belgium thought to be 37,000 years old are actually thousands of years older than previous studies suggested, study shows.

University of Oxford archaeologists re-dated a number of Neanderthal specimens from Spy Cave in Belgium, a renowned site for palaeolithic discoveries and found contamination skewed earlier dating efforts.

The team say some bones previously dated at about 37,000 years old from within the cave may be up to 5,000 years older.

Determining that the bones were older than suspected allowed the researchers to confirm that Neanderthals disappeared from northwest Europe between 44,200 and 40,600 years ago – up to 8,000 years later than previous estimates.  

Homo Sapiens arrived in Europe about 45,000 years ago, with the authors suggesting there ‘must have been opportunities for cultural and genetic exchange.’

Maxilla and mandible assemblage of a late Neanderthal from Spy cave. Neanderthal remains discovered in a cave in Belgium thought to be 37,000 years old are actually thousands of years older than previous studies suggested, study shows

SPY CAVE: A KEY PALAEOLITHIC SITE 

Spy Cave, or Grotte de Spy in French, is a palaeolithic treasure trove first discovered in 1886.

It is located near Spy in the municipality of Jemeppe-sur-Sambre in Belgium above the bank of the Orneau River.

It is a premier Heritage site and contains a number of small chambers and corridors. 

It was first excavated in the 19th century, revealing Neanderthal fossils that contributed to a paradigm shift in the understanding of evolution.

As well as Neanderthals, early modern humans have been found at the site, suggesting some cross over, interbreeding and cultural exchange.

A recent re-analysis of the fossils found the remains to be much older than previously suspected.

It is thought the earlier remains were contaminated by older treatment techniques and lack of presevation. 

Neanderthal remains from Belgium have long puzzled scientists, according to the Oxford team, as fossil remains from the key site of Spy Cave suggested there were members of the nominin species living in the region 37,000 years ago. 

This would place them among the latest surviving Neanderthals in Europe. But sample contamination might have affected these estimates.

Now, a team based in Oxford’s Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit has re-dated Neanderthal specimens from Spy Cave. 

Most of the dates have been found to be much older than those obtained previously on the same bone samples – up to 5,000 years older in certain cases. 

‘Dating is crucial in archaeology,’ said Oxford Professor Tom Higham.

‘Without a reliable framework of chronology we can’t really 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,’ he explained.

‘The results suggest 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, Oxford-based, Dr Thibaut Devièse said the new chemistry methods for dating applied to the Spy allows for the fossils to be decontaminated.

He said 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.’ 

University of Oxford archaeologists re-dated a number of Neanderthal specimens from Spy Cave in Belgium, a renowned site for palaeolithic discoveries and found contamination skewed earlier dating efforts

University of Oxford archaeologists re-dated a number of Neanderthal specimens from Spy Cave in Belgium, a renowned site for palaeolithic discoveries and found contamination skewed earlier dating efforts

The team found a Neanderthal scapula from the Spy Cave that had produced very recent dates previously of around 28,000 years ago was heavily contaminated with modern bovine DNA. 

These results suggest that the bone had been preserved with a glue prepared from cattle bones and may have resulted in the earlier dates.

The team used an advanced method for radiocarbon dating fossil bones. Using liquid chromatography separation, they were able to extract a single amino acid from the Neanderthal remains for dating. 

This so-called ‘compound-specific’ approach allows scientists to reliably date the bones and exclude carbon from contaminants such as those from the glue that was applied to the fossils. 

Determining that the bones were older than suspected allowed the researchers to confirm that Neanderthals disappeared from northwest Europe between 44,200 and 40,600 years ago - up to 8,000 years later than previous estimates

Determining that the bones were older than suspected allowed the researchers to confirm that Neanderthals disappeared from northwest Europe between 44,200 and 40,600 years ago – up to 8,000 years later than previous estimates

These contaminants have plagued previous attempts to reliably date the Belgian Neanderthals because their presence resulted in dates that were much too young.

The results also highlight the need for robust pre-treatment methods when dating Palaeolithic human remains to minimize biases due to contamination, they said.

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

Neanderthal remains from Belgium have long puzzled scientists, according to the Oxford team, as fossil remains from the key site of Spy Cave suggested there were members of the nominin species living in the region 37,000 years ago

Neanderthal remains from Belgium have long puzzled scientists, according to the Oxford team, as fossil remains from the key site of Spy Cave suggested there were members of the nominin species living in the region 37,000 years ago

Grégory Abrams, of the Scladina Cave Archaeological Centre in Belgium said they also re-dated specimins from two other sites in Belgium. 

They were the Fonds-de-Forêt and Engis, and obtained similar ages to Spy. 

‘Dating all these Belgian specimens was very exciting as they played a major role in the understanding and the definition of Neanderthals,’ Abrams said.

‘Almost two centuries after the discovery of the Neanderthal child of Engis, we were able to provide a reliable age.’

 The findings have been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A close relative of modern humans, Neanderthals went extinct 40,000 years ago

The Neanderthals were a close human ancestor that mysteriously died out around 40,000 years ago.

The species lived in Africa with early humans for millennia before moving across to Europe around 300,000 years ago.

They were later joined by humans, who entered Eurasia around 48,000 years ago.  

The Neanderthals were a cousin species of humans but not a direct ancestor - the two species split from a common ancestor -  that perished around 50,000 years ago. Pictured is a Neanderthal museum exhibit

The Neanderthals were a cousin species of humans but not a direct ancestor – the two species split from a common ancestor –  that perished around 50,000 years ago. Pictured is a Neanderthal museum exhibit

These were the original ‘cavemen’, historically thought to be dim-witted and brutish compared to modern humans.

In recent years though, and especially over the last decade, it has become increasingly apparent we’ve been selling Neanderthals short.

A growing body of evidence points to a more sophisticated and multi-talented kind of ‘caveman’ than anyone thought possible.

It now seems likely that Neanderthals had told, buried their dead, painted and even interbred with humans.   

They used body art such as pigments and beads, and they were the very first artists, with Neanderthal cave art (and symbolism) in Spain apparently predating the earliest modern human art by some 20,000 years.

They are thought to have hunted on land and done some fishing. However, they went extinct around 40,000 years ago following the success of Homo sapiens in Europe.  


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