When did the Neanderthals go extinct?

by Greg Mayer

In a recent paper in Nature (abstract only), Tom Higham of Oxford and several colleagues report on their effort to determine by radiocarbon dating when Neanderthals went extinct. Higham et al. conclude that it was about 40,000 years ago. It’s gotten a fair amount of media coverage—more on this below—but let’s look at the science first. What’s most interesting is that they strove very hard to get accurate dates not biased by contamination of their samples by younger carbon (developing new and refined methods along the way), and that they sampled a large number of sites across (mostly Western) Europe. Here’s the basic result.

a) Sites studied; b) dates of last occupation of the various sites (expressed as a probability distribution).

a) Sites studied; b) dates of last occupation of the various sites (expressed as a probability distribution); c) detail of the overall estimate of the end of Neanderthal culture (the Mousterian).

You can see that latest dates range from about 49 to 40 KYA, with a joint estimate of the end of the Mousterian culture at about 40 KYA. There are a few caveats. First, there’s no explanation in the paper for why there are no dates in panel (b) for the 7 southern Iberian localities. These sites are of special interest, because it has been argued in the past that the latest survival of Neanderthals (ca. 35 KYA) was in southern Spain. The Spanish localities are mentioned in the 160+ page supplement, and some are said to not have produced reliable data, but others did, and, maybe the answer’s buried somewhere in the enormous supplement, but I could not readily locate it. (This by the way, is yet another example of the bad practice, characteristic of Science and Nature, of having extremely short papers with monographic online supplements that contain not just the details, but critical parts of the work. If your work is that substantial, then you should publish a monograph, not a tiny summary in Science or Nature.)

Second, many of the sites have little in the way of human remains, so the datings are of a particular cultural style, and the associated type of human is assumed (Neanderthal in the case of the Mousterian), although on fairly robust empirical grounds.

And third, the geographic sampling is sparse outside Western Europe. A claimed late refuge in the Arctic, for example, was not sampled. (There was a very late refuge, until historic times, for mammoths in the Arctic.)

What about the media coverage? It’s been very confused– see examples here and here. Media reports hail the work as showing that Neanderthals went extinct earlier than previously thought; and that we now know Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans overlapped significantly in time, thus allowing opportunities for the genetic mixing that has been now well documented (and much discussed here at WEIT). But these two claims are contradictory– earlier extinction means less temporal overlap; and the second thing is something we’ve known for quite awhile.

So what are we to make of the media claims? Well, the new work doesn’t say much at all about genetic mixing– it occurred whether Neanderthals were all gone by 40 KYA (as this latest work proposes), or survived in Spain till 35 KYA (as some earlier authors had claimed). Higham et al. estimate that there was an overlap of several thousand years of Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans, plenty of time for interbreeding. If the Spanish localities really are a late survival of Neanderthals, that would just add a few thousand more years of opportunity. Now, it will be of great interest to learn (if we can) exactly when and where the interbreeding occurred, but the new paper just adds constraints to the timing– it doesn’t suddenly make interbreeding now seem plausible.

I normally go see what John Hawks has to say about paleoanthropological matters, especially as in this case, since I felt perhaps I was missing something. I looked, but he hasn’t posted in a few weeks– he must be on vacation. I expect he’ll have something to say when he returns.

____________________________________________________________

Higham, T et al. 2014. The timing and spatiotemporal patterning of Neanderthal disappearance. Nature 512:306-309. (abstract only)

h/t Barry Lyons

49 Comments

  1. merilee
    Posted August 28, 2014 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    sub

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted August 28, 2014 at 8:06 am | Permalink

      dos

  2. GBJames
    Posted August 28, 2014 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    I’ve been waiting for John Hawks to comment, too.

    • Chris Walker
      Posted August 28, 2014 at 8:48 am | Permalink

      That’s the first thing I thought when I read this, as well. I recently took an MOOC he offered entitled “Human Evolution: Past and Future” and I loved it! He not only did a great job of explaining the scientific findings, but traveled to many active dig sites and interviewed a lot of people working in the field both about their work and how young people interested in it could begin to pursue it.

  3. steve oberski
    Posted August 28, 2014 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    We all know that Neanderthals disappeared about 4300 years ago (according to Answers In Genesis) because a certain tribal patriarch forgot to include a breeding pair on his big boat.

    • merilee
      Posted August 28, 2014 at 7:55 am | Permalink

      I wonder if the fundies argue about whether the Ark is a boat or a ship;-)

      • lkr
        Posted August 28, 2014 at 9:11 am | Permalink

        “a ship”. except in Canada and some parts of Scotland.

      • noncarborundum
        Posted August 28, 2014 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

        Neither; it’s actually a box. (That’s what the original Hebrew word means. Compare “Ark of the Covenant”.)

    • Posted August 28, 2014 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      That’s why we double-check the manifest, Noah.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted August 28, 2014 at 11:06 am | Permalink

      I would not be the least bit surprised to find some apologist claiming the Neandertals are one of the lost tribes of Israel. The Denisovans should probably be included as well, but apologists tend not to be up on the literature.

  4. J Smith
    Posted August 28, 2014 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    They haven’t, it’s called the tea party.

    But seriously, I’d be interested to know if there are any further insights as to how they went extinct, such as if in part it was due to our ancestors.

    Looks like a great paper.

    • Kevin
      Posted August 28, 2014 at 8:02 am | Permalink

      I think they got killed by humans. Don’t we kill everything on our planet if it is in the way? Seriously, I think spears, i.e. long range weaponry vs. short range weaponry had something to do with it.

      • Jesper Both Pedersen
        Posted August 28, 2014 at 8:15 am | Permalink

        There’s some speculation that it might had to do with rapid changes in climate and the following sparsity of food.

        Compared to sapiens Neanderthals had a larger energy requirement.

        But again, don’t know how well researched this is.

      • Art
        Posted August 28, 2014 at 11:09 am | Permalink

        I agree. There is little evidence of hunter/gatherer groups coexisting peacefully. Our ancestors had atlatls (dart throwers) that could kill at 25-50 yards. I don’t think Neanderthals used projectile weapons at all. When are we going to admit that we are just (intelligent) killer apes?

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted August 28, 2014 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

          Steven Pinker, in The Better Angels of Our Nature, presents considerable evidence that our intelligence is precisely what enables us to overcome our killer ape instincts.

      • Nom de Plume
        Posted August 28, 2014 at 11:14 am | Permalink

        I think they got killed by humans.

        This does seem to be the most intuitive explanation, doesn’t it? Just look at how we still act towards people who are even slightly different from ourselves, and then consider the differences between AMH’s and Neanderthals. Hostility would have been the first and only reaction. And as for interbreeding, I highly doubt it was consensual, for these very reasons.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 28, 2014 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

        But we are primates and primates like mating with things. 😉

        • Posted August 28, 2014 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

          Several “can’t unsee this” Internet videos support your assertion.

    • eric
      Posted August 29, 2014 at 11:18 am | Permalink

      Lots of megafauna also died out during the late Pleistocene. Now, maybe we killed all of it along with our cousins. But the fact that big animals (which are better adapted for cold) and neanderthals (also expected to be adapted for cold) died out as the last glacial period ended says to me that climate had something to do with it.

      Keep in mind that it wouldn’t take a lot of direct violence to cause such extinctions. Nothing even approaching full-on predation or genocide. Killing only a few members of a tribe for their territory, or some small percent of a herd, could force those original inhabitants into inhospitable territory. The losers move, and then the whole group/herd could be dead within a generation or two due to resource starvation.

      And here’s a second possible explatation (or third, if we take ‘genocide’ as being the first): consider that for the native north Americans (and aboriginal Tasmanians), we now think that disease killed vastly more than guns did and conquest did. Same sort of extinction could have happened in this case: Neanderthals were doing just fine, Sapiens moved in bringing proto-smallpox, and boom, 90% of Neanderthals are gone. Spears are then responsible for the last 10%.

  5. bonetired
    Posted August 28, 2014 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    Funnily enough I have been reading Clive Finlayson’s “The Humans Who Went Extinct” (Published 2009) and he goes for 28-24 kya. I guess that he is one of the “earlier authors”.

    I might email him in Gibraltar and ask his opinion ….

  6. Armando
    Posted August 28, 2014 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    I am always surprised that people tend not to mention the remains of a 4 year old child dated ~25KYA that show a mixture of modern human and neanderthal features (Duarte et al, 1999). Isn’t that string evidence that neanderthals likely survided, and interbred with humans until at least 25KYA. I know that adult remains would be easier to fully characterize, but still…

    Reference:
    Duarte C; Mauricio J; Pettitt PB; Souto P; Trinkaus E; van der Plicht H; Zilhao J. 1999. The early Upper Paleolithic human skeleton from the Abrigo do Lagar Velho (Portugal) and modern human emergence in Iberia. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. Jun 22, 1999; 96(13): 7604–7609.

  7. darrelle
    Posted August 28, 2014 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    In some sense they are not entirely extinct, but merely diluted.

    Also looking forward to John Hawks thoughts on this new study. I’ve found his explanations very clear and informative in a sea of many, often completely wrong, stuff about the exciting findings about Neanderthals over the past decade or so.

  8. jeffran
    Posted August 28, 2014 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    Sorry, this is a link unrelated to neanderthals, but I never know where to post things like this for PCC and WEIT readers.

    From NPR, “Atheists Feel Awe Too” (as if!):

    http://www.npr.org/blogs/13.7/2014/08/28/343952506/atheists-feel-awe-too

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted August 28, 2014 at 10:00 am | Permalink

      Per Rool #9, Jerry prefers that you email suggestions to him, so that he can decide if they’re worth posting. His email address is not hard to find by Googling.

      • jeffran
        Posted August 28, 2014 at 10:53 am | Permalink

        Thank you – will do!

  9. Posted August 28, 2014 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on SelfAwarePatterns.

  10. John Scanlon, FCD
    Posted August 28, 2014 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    Jerry, the info you were looking for is in Table S32 on p73 of the supplement (with some text on p72). They weren’t able to get dates because of poor preservation, and conclude:
    “Taken together, there is no robust chronometric evidence, as yet, for late survival of Neanderthals south of the Ebro frontier. Further work may elucidate this.”

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted August 28, 2014 at 11:16 am | Permalink

      Sorry Greg, missed your byline till now.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted August 28, 2014 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      Damn, they need the power of the * on their table. 🙂

  11. Posted August 28, 2014 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    The Neanderthals were humans and perhaps should be Homo sapiens neanderthalensis (we are Homo sapiens sapiens – meaning (modestly) the wise, wise humans. The tools Neanderthal made are classified as Mousterian and in general are categorized as “simpler” than those made by their successors. Their tools, however, did the job, and Neanderthals were able to live in chilly to downright cold Pleistocene Europe. The modern Homo model does indeed show up in Europe about 40,000 years ago. The meeting was probably not hospitable as is the case so frequently when one group of humans meets another. What occurred was probably a fairly typical example of tribalism in which one group exterminates another. It has been happening over and over ad infinitum, ad nauseum. It’s in our nature, much as we would like to believe otherwise.

    This “anti-Neanderthal” racism is blatant in so much of the anthropological literature in which the Neanderthals are considered the “brutes” and modern humans the superiors. It seems to have come as a revelation that the very first Neanderthal discovered, who was a very old man with multiple lesions on his skull and only two remaining teeth and whose jawbone was largely resorbed, had been cared for by his family. I used to use the term “much loved.” His food had to be prechewed and otherwise pulverized for years because he would have been incapable of doing it. He had advanced arthritis which led to the still prevalent image of a stooped brute as a typical Neanderthal.

    Neanderthals have a very bad academic press which only slops over into the popular press, hence the years of denial of the chance of breeding between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons (the Model Ts of modern humans). But interbreeding is what different populations always do whether by force or intermarriage. One paper I read claimed that modern humans and Neanderthals did not interbreed because Neanderthals were too ugly. I asked my classes at the time whether there were any people on campus too ugly not to find someone who would have sex with them.

    I don’t have access to this current paper and have read only what Science News and similar sources have to say. No one wants to bring up racism, but I believe we are seeing it both in the existing literature and in the fossil record.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted August 28, 2014 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

      As someone of European heritage, I embrace my inevitable Neanderthal DNA. 🙂

    • jakc
      Posted August 28, 2014 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

      Exactly. The short answer is that Neandertals aren’t extinct, anymore than say dinosaurs went extinct. Neandertals left plenty ancestors (if 5 billion people have a 5% Neandertal genetic inheritance that’s like 250 million Neandertals). Species, especially the big ones that people like to look at like don’t generally last hundreds of millions of years or even tens of millions of years, but isn’t that one of the crucial understandings of evolution? That we can look at Erectus or Neandertal and recognize that they are our ancestors

      • GBJames
        Posted August 28, 2014 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

        Well, they may have left plenty of descendants, but they surely didn’t many ancestors!

        • jakc
          Posted August 28, 2014 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

          Not quite sure of your point. If it’s just that they didn’t leave many ancestors, well, I get that joke, but if you mean that they weren’t many Neandertals, well, you’re absolutely right. Neandertals get plenty of press, but there never was a lot of them. The reason that we don’t see Neandertals today may simply be that their contribution got swamped by other humans from that time. They do seem to have a lot of descendents though. Most humans outside of sub-Sahara Africa seem to have some Neandertal genes, contrary to the early work in the field from the 80’s and 90’s which suggested that no modern human had Neandertal ancestors. The Neandertal culture might have disappeared but I can’t see how we say Neandertals are extinct when the majority of living humans had a Neandertal ancestor

          • GBJames
            Posted August 29, 2014 at 5:08 am | Permalink

            It was a lame joke, referencing what I assume was a typo-style error in your third sentence. Not a particularly high-quality joke, I’ll grant you, but childhood deaths aside, few of us leave ancestors behind when we die.

            That said, as a population, they certainly went extinct, interbreeding aside. I haven’t seen population estimates for Homo sapiens sapiens at 50000 years ago, but I expect they weren’t all that numerous either.

  12. Posted August 28, 2014 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    If your work is that substantial, then you should publish a monograph, not a tiny summary in Science or Nature.

    Unfortunately, the overblown cachet of Science and Nature make that a vain hope.

  13. Posted August 28, 2014 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Given the percentage of organisms that actually become fossilized and the probability that a given fossil will be discovered, whether we can establish that the newest Neanderthal fossils at hand were 40,000 or 35,000 does not necessarily mean that some Neanderthals didn’t survive until, say, 20,000 years ago.

    • lkr
      Posted August 28, 2014 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

      They are dating cultural remains [mostly stone tools, with dating from associated organic material], which are much more abundant and temporally continuous than skeletal remains. [Think of the ratio of your or my discarded tin cans to our bones for future excavators] So lag between last known Neanderthal and last “pure”Neanderthal people wouldn’t be much of a problem.

      I assume they’ve worked out the problem of some possibly transitional or borrowed technologies around the time N and S co-existed in western Europe.

  14. Heather Hastie
    Posted August 28, 2014 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Many years ago, I really enjoyed the fiction series by Jean Auel about the life of her character Ayla who lived in Europe 30 kya. In the first book of the series, Ayla is taken in by a Neanderthal tribe after her parents are killed in an earthquake. Auel draws heavily on research into the era in writing the books, and imo she’s done a great job.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 29, 2014 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for this comprehensive review!

      First, there’s no explanation in the paper for why there are no dates in panel (b) for the 7 southern Iberian localities.

      The S Iberian data is pp 67-72.

      – Jarama IV is dateable by cut-marked bones, but those datings are either lab background or beyond the 50 ka bp limit for carbon dating. No evidence for post-42 ka bp Neanderthal occupation, so not much affecting their “End of Mousterian” distribution.

      – Zafarraya is dateable, not by the cut-marked bones but by ibex bones among Neanderthal bones at a hearth, but those datings are either lab background or beyond the 50 ka bp limit for carbon dating. No evidence for post-42 ka bp Neanderthal occupation, so not much affecting their “End of Mousterian” distribution. They were as a result removing, “with confidence, the remaining evidence for a post-42 ka cal BP Neanderthal occupation”. A ref had reached the same conclusion.

      – The remaining 5 sites were undateable by bone. (p72 summary.)

      Charcoal dates were excluded, for reasons I couldn’t immediately find, but those dates were much younger anyway.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted August 29, 2014 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

        Pls dismiss, meant to be posted at the end.

  15. boggy
    Posted August 29, 2014 at 12:03 am | Permalink

    Article in current New Scientist (Vol 223 No 2983) ‘Decline & Fall of the Neanderthals’ Suggestions that all artefacts known or thought to be Neanderthal are at least 40,000 years old and that Neanderthals disappeared from Europe over a period of about 5,000 years, around the time humans appeared.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted August 29, 2014 at 5:14 am | Permalink

      Does New Scientist think Neandertals weren’t human, or is that you?
      Sounds like the NS article is just a summary of the one being discussed here.

      • boggy
        Posted August 29, 2014 at 11:29 am | Permalink

        Yes, the NS article is clearly based on the Nature article.

      • jakc
        Posted August 29, 2014 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

        John, in the 70’s and 80’s, most anthro courses taught Neandertal as HS neandertalis (as someone above noted), a subspecies. the initial claims of the “out of Africa” proponents was for complete replacement of Neandertals by “anatomically-modern humans” and the initial genetic arguments were that Neandertal was ruled out as a contributor to modern homo sapiens. That genetic argument, based on mitochondrial DNA was wrong but it did help the idea of Neabdertal as a separate species. It seems to me to a basic violation of cladistics to claim that modern humans are descended from modern humans and Neandertals, yet we see this claim time and again from professionals. It’s part of the reason for my earlier rant that Neandertals haven’t gone extinct.

  16. Slumbery
    Posted August 29, 2014 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    “Well, the new work doesn’t say much at all about genetic mixing– it occurred whether Neanderthals were all gone by 40 KYA (as this latest work proposes), or survived in Spain till 35 KYA (as some earlier authors had claimed). Higham et al. estimate that there was an overlap of several thousand years of Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans, plenty of time for interbreeding.”

    The overlap time is much longer in the Middle East. While mixing in Europe is possible, but the hypothesis that the Neanderthal genes of the current population came mostly from a Middle Eastern mixture fits the known data better.
    – Neanderthal genes are fairly universal in Europe, despite the multiple waves of Neolithic immigration (mostly from the Middle East) that pushed out/assimilated the original European human population in a significant part of Europe.
    – Neanderthal genes are present in all populations outside of the Sub-Saharan Africa. Their level is not significantly lower in East Asia for example. (Though the exact alleles and their frequency are not universal in the entire area, but this fact still rules out European-only mixing at least.)
    – The comparison of the extant alleles with the known Neanderthal genomes shown that the closest match to our Neanderthal part is the sample from the Caucasus (as opposed to samples from Europe or Central Asia). The Caucasian sample is the closest geographically to the Middles East among the successfully analysed samples.

  17. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 29, 2014 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this comprehensive review!

    First, there’s no explanation in the paper for why there are no dates in panel (b) for the 7 southern Iberian localities.

    The S Iberian data is pp 67-72.

    – Jarama IV is dateable by cut-marked bones, but those datings are either lab background or beyond the 50 ka bp limit for carbon dating. No evidence for post-42 ka bp Neanderthal occupation, so not much affecting their “End of Mousterian” distribution.

    – Zafarraya is dateable, not by the cut-marked bones but by ibex bones among Neanderthal bones at a hearth, but those datings are either lab background or beyond the 50 ka bp limit for carbon dating. No evidence for post-42 ka bp Neanderthal occupation, so not much affecting their “End of Mousterian” distribution. They were as a result removing, “with confidence, the remaining evidence for a post-42 ka cal BP Neanderthal occupation”. A ref had reached the same conclusion.

    – The remaining 5 sites were undateable by bone. (p72 summary.)

    Charcoal dates were excluded, for reasons I couldn’t find but those dates were much younger anyway.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 29, 2014 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

      … for reasons I couldn’t immediately find …

  18. Posted September 2, 2014 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    From a book of poetry I published earlier this year, not sure if anyone’s done a poem in quite this vein about the vanished Neanderthals, so I gave it a try:

    Late spilt from Africa, we find you now
    upon the gray Eurasian flats, the woods,
    the weeds, your seed, your rude protruding brow,
    your rumpled face, how can we not upend your brood?
    Accoutered only with a scattered wit,
    a most unlikely race to bring a doom,
    distracted by our gods, our arts, and yet,
    with smaller brain and slighter bone we come,
    to wonder, poke and stir, to solve, to grunt,
    to crumple, cracking you, that final husk
    around our continental egg. Thick stump,
    we’ll bump you in the rye, smear dry your musk,

    and only later dare untrench your bones
    to find, as we unspool your code, our own.


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