New Dates For Neanderthals Shakes Up Long-Held Theory

By Gemma Tarlach | September 4, 2017 2:00 pm
Neanderthal remains previously found in Croatia's Vindija Cave return to the spotlight in new research that claims earlier studies got their age wrong. (Credit Ivor Karavani)

Dating of Neanderthals gone awry? Remains of our hominin cousins previously found in Croatia’s Vindija Cave return to the spotlight with new research that claims earlier studies got their age very wrong. (Credit Ivor Karavani)

With every new find, our understanding of the twilight of the Neanderthals, our nearest hominin kin, advances. Or not.

New research on some of the most famous Neanderthal fossils, from Croatia’s Vindija Cave, suggest earlier analysis about their age and significance may be all wrong. Oops.

More than 40 years ago, researchers in Vindija Cave unearthed hominin bones and a curious assemblage of stone and bone tools that seemed to be a mixed bag of technology styles: Some were of the type traditionally assigned to Neanderthals, while others seemed to have been made by anatomically modern humans (AMHs) who, according to the conventional human evolution and migration timeline, first arrived in Central Europe from our African homeland around 40,000 years ago.

(Faithful Dead Things readers know I think that conventional timeline needs an overhaul, if not a complete rebuild, as evidence comes to light — most recently in Australia and Indonesia — pointing to a much earlier Homo sapiens dispersal. But I digress).

The Vindija hominins, which turned out to be Neanderthals, have been hugely significant for science. In 2008, for example, researchers were able to sequence the first entire mitochondrial genome of a Neanderthal from one of the individuals at Vindija.

But it’s arguably their age that has drawn the most interest over the past few decades.

In 1999, researchers used direct radiocarbon dating to find an astoundingly early date for them of about 28,000-29,000 years ago.

In 2006, however, a team (including some of the same researchers) took another crack at the remains with direct radiocarbon dating and determined an age of about 32,000 to 34,000 years.

Before we go any further, by the way, for folks who like to offer tedious commentary along the lines of “See? The scientists can’t make up their minds/don’t know what they’re talking about/are wrong again and therefore evolution is not a thing,” let me explain once more: This is how science works. It’s about testing and retesting and, depending on the results, revising previous conclusions and testing again and developing a whole body of evidence that, eventually, points to a single conclusion.

And yeah, evolution is a thing.

Neanderthals and Humans and Dating: It’s Complicated

Okay, back to Vindija. Whether you go with the 1999 research or the 2006 revision, both date ranges are recent enough that this population appeared to be among the last, if not the actual final holdout, of Neanderthals. In fancy paleoanthro talk they appeared to be a “refugial population” that survived, isolated, after the rest of their kind had gone the way of every other archaic hominin.

Those previously proposed ages also suggested that the Vindija Neanderthals had occupied the same slice of time, in the same region, as AMHs, and possibly interacted with them, perhaps through trading and even interbreeding.

I don’t need to detail how interbreeding would have gone down, but the idea of trading was of particular interest to many researchers studying Vindija because of the mix of Neanderthal and AMH artifacts apparently deposited together. Was it the first interspecies swap meet?

In a study published today in PNAS, however, a new and more accurate approach to dating the remains reveals that the Vindija Neanderthals are a lot older than anyone thought, and that it’s possible the mix of artifacts has nothing to do with hominins of any species and everything to do with a bear. Yes, a bear.

Another discovery: The team behind today’s study also found a whole new Neanderthal bit by using a recently-created technique called ZooMS to identify previously unidentifiable bone fragments.

To date the remains this go-round, researchers still used radiocarbon dating. But this time they dated the amino acid hydroxyproline extracted from collagen preserved in the bones and prepped it in a way that does a particularly fine job of removing contaminants.

Fancy multi-angle view of one of the Neanderthal bones found in Vindija Cave, Croatia. (Credit Thomas Higham)

Fancy multi-angle view of one of the Neanderthal bones found in Vindija Cave, Croatia. (Credit Thomas Higham)

The results: All of the remains were more than 40,000 year old, and the newly-identified fragment may be up to about 48,000 years old.

Showing Their Age

In addition to the Neanderthals, the researchers also dated assorted animal bones and one of the artifacts, a bone point (they tried to date more tools, but their methods required a sufficient amount of preserved collagen and they came up empty in the other attempts). They found a range of dates for these items despite being from the same level of the cave excavation, and most of the animal bones tested belonged to bears.

Taking all the evidence together, the team concluded it was most likely that a cave bear hanging out in Vindija, lolling about as cave bears do in all its half-ton glory, probably disturbed the layers of stuff that had accumulated in the cave over millennia and mixed it all up.

So, at least based on today’s date revision, the Neanderthals of Vindija were not the last members of their species. Not by a long shot. Instead, it appears they lived (and died) millennia before the end times for their kind.

It also appears that the Vindija Neanderthals were long gone from this mortal coil before the first AMHs set foot in Europe. If, of course, you believe the conventional timeline for our dispersal from Africa is correct.

We’ll see about that. Stay tuned.


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Comments (31)

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  1. [BLOG] Some Tuesday links | A Bit More Detail | September 5, 2017
  1. If, of course, you believe the conventional timeline for our dispersal from Africa is correct.” Their appears to have been primal genetic flow in both directions. Thus pre-history Imazighen reappeared as Moors who almost elevated Roman Catholic Spain while sub-Saharan populations in near perfect genetic isolation, ah, require more studies.

    • Erik Bosma

      Yep, although most people may have gone one way – in those days they didn’t have maps – but many also went back to where there ancestors came from. When you’re looking for a consistent supply of food you go where you need to.

  2. Randy

    “from our African homeland around 40,000 years ago.” Spare the Cult Marx propaganda please.

    • UpperLeftCoast

      Yes. Everyone, just everyone with a lick of common sense who hasn’t bought into (insert conspiracy of 1st choice) and (insert conspiracy of 2nd choice) and (insert conspiracy of 3rd choice) knows that the humans actually came to Earth in a mis-directed shipment from Intergalactic Amazon Prime 10 days ago and those who claim otherwise are just trying to mislead, etc. ALGoreALGoreALGoreALGore. No SUVs 10,000 years ago, yet the ice sheets melted, blah blah blah.

  3. Randy

    “I don’t need to detail how interbreeding would have gone down” Fixed: I don’t need to detail my hypothesis of how interbreeding would have gone down.”

  4. Randy

    My genome is .3% African, 5% Neanderthal, and the rest European. My homeland is Europe not Africa.

  5. Erik Bosma

    They make it seem as if humans just all packed up and left Africa en masse 40,000 years ago. I believe that especially after many regular famines some folks realized that the ocean could nourish them more consistently. As tribes people move all the time. When there are too many people to be supported by the local environment, some of them leave to a new location. So they gradually followed the shoreline. Some went south; some went north. They became adept at sea faring since they have now lived along the shore for many many generations. The descendants of the ones that went north eventually wound up in Australia and Japan/Korea. And behind them were more that kept coming because they figured out the same thing about the ocean shoreline. Some stayed where they had it good and civilizations eventually developed. We’re still doing that except these days we’re not as welcoming anymore.

  6. OWilson

    The book is still being written.

    Theories from incomplete or corrupted data, like mixed bones and artifacts, which could have found their in situ place, by many different mechanisms, should be weighed carefully.

    Likewise “trading” between AMH and Neandertals, in those brutal survival days, could have been merely looting and pillaging!

    It’s happening even today!

    • Erik Bosma

      This may sound racist, but believe me I am not racist. I just follow the descendants of the first peoples. I especially follow the dark skin/curly hair trail. You can, even today, observe that people with dark skin and curly hair live along the coast lines from Africa right through to Northern Japan and Australia. And then along the way, as you go inland, people become paler skinned and less curly. You can also tell where descendants of some of the earliest people have come back towards the coasts – especially in the Mongolid peoples and the ‘Aryans’ especially in China and India. When I tried this procedure once and then went back to archaeological resource websites to see if I was right and scored 100%. By the way, this method would then show that the ancient Sumerians must have been dark skinned peoples because they lived there before the “Aryan invasions”.

      • OWilson

        You have to be careful not to break any Politically Correct taboos when you talk about origins, and populations.

        It does restrict the dialogue, but they’ll tell you it is better to hold back your thoughts than to “promote racism”.

        They can play around the edges with their “conservatives are this, and liberals are that, fun stuff, but at the deeper levels they don’t want to mention pygmies and hottentots and cannibals who used to grace the pages of Nat Geo, but are still around, but now relegated to taboo insignificance!

        • Erik Bosma

          I appreciate the warning OW but I think I’m safe with the terms ‘dark skin’ and ‘curly hair’ since these were two of the obvious characteristics of the African phenotype 100,000 years ago. Light skin and lighter coloured hair were

          characteristics that developed much much later. This is what makes it so interesting to track the developments of species on the move over a long period of time. We can also use skull shape. The typical Mongolid phenotype was developed during the last part of the last period of glaciation by a group of extremely hardy souls that were trapped in a very cold environment in what we now call Siberia for thousands of years. Some of them went south after it was possible and mingled (well, they did more than mingle, nudge nudge, wink wink)into SE Asia with the humans who were already living there. Some of them went north and became the northern sea hunters and gatherers like the Inuit et al.
          I don’t think anyone would be offended by some obvious physical features, would you?

          • OWilson

            I was fortunate enough to have a GF from Kazakhstan who was directly descended from Ghengis, (he got around!) and who looked like him in a beautiful sort of way.

            Eyes permanently squinted against the sun, wind and dust of the steppes. Although she was a city girl, she kept close to her roots.

            I felt blessed to be a tiny part of that history!

          • Erik Bosma

            Better be careful OW. Irma’s a killer and her jealous lover Jose is right behind. Well, I’m glad you can see it the way I see it. All those ancient physical traits are more like a celebration of our diversity and at the same time shows us how similar we all are. Haplotypes/families same diff. – well, kind of.

          • OWilson

            Love diversity, and I certainly walk the walk 🙂

            (The only humanoids I have trouble with are white bread, silk stocking socialist, limousine liberals, who insist on telling everyone else how they should live!)

          • Erik Bosma

            Yeah I figured that out already. I try to stay somewhere in the middle of this mess myself. But as the French say, “Vive le difference!”

          • Erik Bosma

            Yep, the day will come (and not soon enough) when we will all be brown. Again.

  7. John C

    Sure, evolution is a thing.
    But so are safe GMO’s, safe vaccines, gluten, magic stone healing, astrology, jade vaginal eggs and lots of other things that people with Darwin fish car emblems hold unscientific beliefs about.
    Goofy is a non-partisan enterprise.

    • Erik Bosma

      Well, your link goes nowhere and the home site of said broken link is just a click-through site of links to other web sites. Nothing original at Real Clear Science. I would have loved to see the study that validates your claims about people with Darwin bumper stickers.

  8. Erik Bosma

    Maybe that’s why they call them “theories” because they’re always subject to correction. That’s what I love about science. It’s always open to new discoveries unlike religion which hasn’t changed for thousands of years.

    • kmtominey44

      Hey – even conservative, biblical inerrancy Christians do not promote animal sacrifice. Yes, Leviticus has pages on animal sacrifice but just a few lines on homosexual sex.

      Picking and choosing for sure – but interesting that they dropped the topics with the most pages. I do not think most conservatives Christians actually read the whole books that they cite bits and pieces of.

      • re zttop

        Maybe because their theology tells them to drop those portions because of the New Testament.

        • kmtominey44

          No – banned use of multifiber clothing, single plant seed per field – were dogs that just were not hunting going forward. But a lot of food safety rules are still embedded in custom but no longer based in practical need.

  9. James Brown

    If you give thought to the Earth has re-cycled 3 or more times. The living ” humans” / Upright walking, making tools, breeding with suvivers from past changes in our earths surface / Heat / Ice / etc. Has blended our gene poll to the mixture we have today.
    We seem to have been around for a very long time 400,000 + yrs.

  10. James Brown

    Stone “tools” found on the West coast / difer from those found on the East coast. But the middle north american and south American
    Stone tools found seemed to be a mixture of both found tools and more from another, ” un-found” area………


  11. Bren W

    Why is it mandatory that our ancestors first evolved onto one shoreline and not multiple shorelines? Migration is logical but to think that life only evolved on Africa is selling it short. And even though not “anatomically” like modern humans why aren’t Neanderthals called human? Aren’t all the extinct lines just another “species” of human?

    • Portefoi
    • re zttop

      Technically you are right. Sometimes people use “human” for “modern humans”. Why, Idk since Neanderthals and a few other groups like late H. erectus and Rhodesia Man clearly fit in the human range of variation.


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