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Trending science: New research confirms long coexistence of humans and Neanderthals

Ground breaking research has provided the strongest evidence yet that humans and Neanderthals coexisted in Europe for thousands of years.

While there has been speculation over the extent to which these two humanoid species intermingled some 40,000-odd years ago, research led by the University of Oxford in the UK suggests that co-existence might have lasted for as long as 5,000 years. What is more, the research, published in the journal Nature, has enabled scientists to piece together the most accurate picture yet of when the last Neanderthals died out. It would appear that Neanderthals disappeared at different times across Europe rather than being rapidly replaced by modern humans, a key piece of knowledge that could help archaeologists finally understand why our close cousins died out. In fact, the study indicates that Neanderthals died out in Europe 10,000 years earlier than previously thought – between 41,000 and 39,000 years ago – which coincides with the start of a very cold period in Europe. These breakthroughs were made possible after new radiocarbon dates for around 200 samples of bone, charcoal and shell, from sites ranging from Russia in the east to Spain in the west (roughly the range that experts believe Neanderthals to have lived in) were painstakingly examined over a period of six years. Previous radiocarbon dates have often underestimated the age of samples from sites associated with Neanderthals because the organic matter was contaminated with modern particles. New ultrafiltration methods, designed to purify the extracted collagen from bone were therefore used. The data gleaned from this technique confirms that the both groups overlapped for a significant period, giving ‘ample time’ for interaction and interbreeding. This assertion is backed up by other recent studies, which have consistently suggested that around 2% of the DNA of modern non-African humans originate from Neanderthals. In addition, the chronology that the scientists have been able to piece together suggests that Neanderthals were not killed off by any one event, but rather survived and dwindled in various pockets across Europe, before they eventually became extinct. Rather than being rapidly replaced by modern humans therefore, Neanderthals appear to have interacted with humans for several thousand years. The research adds to our ever-increasing knowledge about this species. In December 2013, researchers reported evidence that Neanderthals practiced burial behaviour, and intentionally buried their dead. In addition, scientists recently reported that the entire genome of a Neanderthal had been completed. The genome was extracted from the toe bone of a 130,000-year-old Neanderthal found in a Siberian cave. There remains a great deal of mystery of course – there is still currently no hard evidence to prove that Neanderthals and early modern humans lived closely together. But in our bid to better understand our distant European past, this latest fragment of research – using the most modern and advanced techniques available in the field – represents a bold step forward.For more information, please visit: Nature Journal http://www.nature.com/nature/focus/neanderthaldna/

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