Neanderthals disappeared from Belgium thousands of years earlier than thought

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Maxilla and mandible assemblage of a late Neanderthal from Spy cave (c) Patrick Semal
09/03/2021
Neanderthals disappeared from Belgium thousands of years earlier than thought
post by
Siska Van Parys

Belgian Neanderthal remains, including the world-famous Neanderthals of Spy, are thousands of years older than previously assumed. This is the conclusion of an international research team that re-dated the Belgian Neanderthal remains with a new technique. This discovery implies that Neanderthals disappeared from Belgium much earlier than thought and are therefore no longer the youngest Neanderthals in Europe.

The robust Neanderthals dominated Europe and Asia until about 50,000 years ago, until modern humans replaced them. Neanderthals also lived in our regions. Numerous finds in the Walloon Meuse basin bear witness to this. The Neanderthals of Spy, which are kept in the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS), are said to be the youngest in Europe at 37,000 years old. However, a new study led by Oxford University, in which the RBINS also collaborated, has now shown that Belgian Neanderthals disappeared from the region between 44,200 and 40,600 years ago, much earlier than previously assumed. Contamination of the samples would have been the cause of the incorrect dating.

A new method

A multidisciplinary team of archaeologists, geologists, geneticists, and anthropologists re-dated Neanderthal fossils from the Spy cave and two other Belgian sites, Fonds-de-Forêt ((including a femur preserved at the RBINS) and Engis. They used a new dating method in which only the amino acid hydroxyproline is dated. This method limits the risk of contamination by, for example, glue. The results show that Neanderthal remains are older than previously thought, in some cases even 10,000 years older.

For example, the team discovered that a shoulder blade from a Spy Neanderthal (preserved at the ULiège), which had previously yielded very recent data (around 28 000 years ago), was heavily contaminated with bovine DNA. The results suggest that the bone was preserved with an adhesive prepared from bovine bones. 'These new chemical methods are the only way we can remove contamination from the samples with certainty,' says Thibaut Devièse (University of Oxford), first author of the study. 'The molecules we date come only from the bone, and not from other sources.'

Cultural transition

'Dating is crucial in archaeology,' stresses Tom Higham (University of Oxford), who leads the PalaeoChron research project, 'because without a reliable chronological framework, we can't really understand the relationships between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. When Homo sapiens moved into Europe 45,000 years ago, Neanderthals began to disappear. These new methods are hugely important to investigate this transition'.

'Dating all these Belgian specimens was very exciting', says Grégory Abrams, of the Scladina Cave Archaeological Centre in Belgium. 'They played a major role in the understanding and the definition of Neanderthals. Almost two centuries after the discovery of the Neanderthal child of Engis, we were able to provide a reliable age.'

The team is now analysing archaeological evidence, such as bone tools, to further refine our picture of the cultural transition between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens in our region.

So now Spy's Neanderthals are no longer the most recent in Europe, but inevitably the young Neanderthal fossils from Gibraltar, Catalonia and south-west France will also be (re)dated using the new technique.

 

The study was published in the journal PNAS.

Based on the press release from the University of Oxford and the Scladina Cave Archaeological Center.

 

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