Scientists document most recent date for Neandertals

St. Louis, Mo., Oct. 25, 1999 -- An international team of scientists has documented through new radiocarbon dating that Neandertals roamed central Europe as recently as 28,000 years ago, representing the latest date ever recorded for Neandertal fossils worldwide.

The team's findings -- published in the Oct. 26 issue of the prestigious journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences -- may force other scientists to rethink theories of Neandertal extinction, intelligence and contributions to the human gene pool. The research on Neandertal fossils from the Vindija cave site in Croatia also casts doubt on the theory that the Iberian Peninsula was the Neandertals' last refuge.

"Most scientists would have expected to find the latest Neandertal in southwest Europe, rather than in central Europe," said paleontologist Fred H. Smith, a research team member and chairman of the Anthropology Department at Northern Illinois University. "The new radiocarbon dates suggest Neandertals would have coexisted with early modern humans in central Europe for several millennia."

"The extinction of the Neandertals by early modern humans, whether by displacement or population absorption, was a slow and geographically mosaic process," said team member Erik Trinkaus, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis. "The differences between the two groups in basic behavior and abilities must have been small and rather subtle."

Using direct accelerator mass spectrometry radiocarbon dating, team member Paul Pettitt and colleagues at Oxford University (England), determined that two pieces of Neandertal skulls from the Vindija cave site are between 28,000 and 29,000 years old.

The new Croatian dates refute previous evidence indicating central European Neandertals had disappeared by 34,000 years ago. Neandertals are commonly portrayed as prehistoric humans of limited capabilities who were rapidly replaced and driven to extinction by superior early modern huma

Contact: Ann Nicholson
Washington University in St. Louis

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