Neanderthals and humans had 'ample time' to mix, new study says

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Neanderthals and humans had 'ample time' to mix, new study says
FILE - The March 20, 2009 file photo shows the prehistoric Neanderthal man "N", left, as he is visited for the first time by another reconstruction of a homo neanderthalensis called "Wilma", right, at the Neanderthal museum in Mettmann, Germany. The world famous fossil "N" is estimated being about 40.000 years old; "Wilma" was built by Dutch artists Alfons and Adrie Kennis for the National Geographic magazine on a skeleton from the American museum of natural history in New York. Theories about when the last Neanderthals walked the Earth may have to be revised, according to a study that suggests they became extinct in their last refuge in Spain much earlier than previously thought. Previous dating of bone fossils found at Neanderthal sites in the region put the youngest at about 35,000 years. But researchers from Australia and Europe re-examined the bones using an improved method to filter out contamination and concluded that the remains are about 50,000 years old. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, file)
Nach rund 40.000 Jahren treffen am Freitag, 20. Maerz 2009, erstmals die beiden Neanderthaler "N", links, und "Wilma" im Neanderthal Museum in Mettmann aufeinander. Die Rekonstruktion des 1856 in der Feldhofer Grotte gefundenen "N" steht seit 2006 im Museum und hat nun einen weiblichen Part in der fuer das amerikanische Magazin National Geopgraphic rekonstruierten "Wilma" gefunden. Sie wurde von den niederlaendischen Kuenstler Alfons und Adrie Kennis auf einem idealisierten Neanderthalerskelett des American Museum of Natural History in New York aufgebaut. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner) --- The prehistoric Neanderthal man "N", left, is visited for the first time by another reconstruction of a homo neanderthalensis called "Wilma", right, at the Neanderthal museum in Mettmann, Germany, Friday, March 20, 2009. The world famous fossil "N" is about 40.000 years old and was found 1856 at the Feldhofer grotto at the Neander Valley in Mettmann, western Germany. "Wilma" was built by Dutch artists Alfons and Adrie Kennis for the National Geographic magazine on a skeleton from the American museum of natural history in New York. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
Nach rund 40.000 Jahren treffen am Freitag, 20. Maerz 2009, erstmals die beiden Neanderthaler "N", links, und "Wilma" im Neanderthal Museum in Mettmann aufeinander. Die Rekonstruktion des 1856 in der Feldhofer Grotte gefundenen "N" steht seit 2006 im Museum und hat nun einen weiblichen Part in der fuer das amerikanische Magazin National Geopgraphic rekonstruierten "Wilma" gefunden. Sie wurde von den niederlaendischen Kuenstler Alfons und Adrie Kennis auf einem idealisierten Neanderthalerskelett des American Museum of Natural History in New York aufgebaut. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner) --- The prehistoric Neanderthal man "N", left, is visited for the first time by another reconstruction of a homo neanderthalensis called "Wilma", right, at the Neanderthal museum in Mettmann, Germany, Friday, March 20, 2009. The world famous fossil "N" is about 40.000 years old and was found 1856 at the Feldhofer grotto at the Neander Valley in Mettmann, western Germany. "Wilma" was built by Dutch artists Alfons and Adrie Kennis for the National Geographic magazine on a skeleton from the American museum of natural history in New York. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
A Neanderthal jaw bone found in the Vindija cave site in Croatia is shown in this undated photo. Neanderthals and modern humans may have coexisted in central Europe for thousands of years, possibly even mating, according to new radiocarbon dating of this and other bones from the Vindija cave Monday, Oct. 25, 1999. (AP Photo/Croatian Academy of Sciences via NIU)
The skeleton of a Neanderthal found at Shanidar cave in Irbil and datable to about 45000 years ago, is displayed at the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, April 2, 2013. Tens of thousands of artifacts chronicling some 7,000 years of civilization in Mesopotamia are believed to have been looted from Iraq in the chaos which followed the the US-led invasion in 2003. Despite international efforts to track items down, fewer than half of the artifacts have so far been retrieved. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
ITALY - JUNE 15: Neanderthal fossil skull (Homo neanderthalensis), profile, found in Mount Circeo, Lazio, Italy. Rome, Museo Di Paleontologia (Paleonthology Museum) (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
Reproduction of a Neanderthal woman of Sidon Cave in Asturias, rooms of prehistory at the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Cristina Arias/Cover/Getty Images)
View taken on July 8, 2010 of a mannequin of a Tautavel Man presented at the prehistoric museum in Tautavel. The European Centre for Prehistoric Research was established in 1992 by French prehistorian Henry de Lumley and is located on the premises of the new museum of Tautavel, the European Prehistoric Centre. Henry de Lumley and his team are at the origin of the discovery of the Tautavel Man, an ancestor of Neanderthal Man, in the Caune de l'Arago cave. AFP PHOTO / ERIC CABANIS (Photo credit should read ERIC CABANIS/AFP/Getty Images)
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By FRANK JORDANS

BERLIN (AP) -- Humans and Neanderthals may have coexisted in Europe for more than 5,000 years, providing ample time for the two species to meet and mix, according to new research.

Using new carbon dating techniques and mathematical models, researchers examined about 200 samples found at 40 sites from Spain to Russia, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature. They concluded with a high probability that pockets of Neanderthal culture survived until between 41,030 and 39,260 years ago.

Although this puts the disappearance of Neanderthals earlier than some scientists previously thought, the findings support the idea that they lived alongside humans, who arrived in Europe about 45,000-43,000 years ago.

"We believe we now have the first robust timeline that sheds new light on some of the key questions around the possible interactions between Neanderthals and modern humans," said Thomas Higham, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford who led the study.

While it's known that Neanderthal genes have survived in the DNA of many modern humans to this day, suggesting that at least some interbreeding took place, scientists are still unclear about the extent of their contact and the reasons why Neanderthals vanished.

"These new results confirm a long-suspected chronological overlap between the last Neanderthals and the first modern humans in Europe," said Jean-Jacques Hublin, director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who wasn't involved in the study.

Apart from narrowing the length of time that the two species existed alongside each other to between 2,600 and 5,400 years, Higham and his colleagues also believe they have shown that Neanderthals and humans largely kept to themselves.

"What we don't see is that there is spatial overlap (in where they settled)," said Higham.

This is puzzling, because there is evidence that late-stage Neanderthals were culturally influenced by modern humans. Samples taken from some Neanderthal sites include artifacts that look like those introduced to Europe by humans migrating from Africa.

This would point to the possibility that Neanderthals - whose name derives from a valley in western Germany - adopted certain human habits and technologies even as they were being gradually pushed out of their territory.

"I think they were eventually outcompeted," said Higham.

Wil Roebroeks, an archaeologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, cautioned that the study relies to a large degree on testing of stone tools, rather than bones, and these haven't been conclusively linked to particular species, or hominins.

"The results of this impressive dating study are clear, but the assumptions about the association of stone artefact with hominin types underlying the interpretation of the dating results will be undoubtedly rigorously tested in field- and laboratory work over the near future," said Roebroeks, who wasn't involved in the study. "Such testing can now be done with a chronologically clean slate."

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