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The timing and spatiotemporal patterning of Neanderthal disappearance

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Abstract

The timing of Neanderthal disappearance and the extent to which they overlapped with the earliest incoming anatomically modern humans (AMHs) in Eurasia are key questions in palaeoanthropology1,2. Determining the spatiotemporal relationship between the two populations is crucial if we are to understand the processes, timing and reasons leading to the disappearance of Neanderthals and the likelihood of cultural and genetic exchange. Serious technical challenges, however, have hindered reliable dating of the period, as the radiocarbon method reaches its limit at 50,000 years ago3. Here we apply improved accelerator mass spectrometry 14C techniques to construct robust chronologies from 40 key Mousterian and Neanderthal archaeological sites, ranging from Russia to Spain. Bayesian age modelling was used to generate probability distribution functions to determine the latest appearance date. We show that the Mousterian ended by 41,030–39,260 calibrated years bp (at 95.4% probability) across Europe. We also demonstrate that succeeding ‘transitional’ archaeological industries, one of which has been linked with Neanderthals (Châtelperronian)4, end at a similar time. Our data indicate that the disappearance of Neanderthals occurred at different times in different regions. Comparing the data with results obtained from the earliest dated AMH sites in Europe, associated with the Uluzzian technocomplex5, allows us to quantify the temporal overlap between the two human groups. The results reveal a significant overlap of 2,600–5,400 years (at 95.4% probability). This has important implications for models seeking to explain the cultural, technological and biological elements involved in the replacement of Neanderthals by AMHs. A mosaic of populations in Europe during the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition suggests that there was ample time for the transmission of cultural and symbolic behaviours, as well as possible genetic exchanges, between the two groups.

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Figure 1: Site locations and final boundary age ranges for Mousterian and Neanderthal sites.
Figure 2: Transitional site locations and Bayesian age ranges for the start and end of the Châtelperronian and Uluzzian technocomplexes.
Figure 3: Time slices for western Europe between 45,000 and 40,000 cal bp showing the distribution of the Mousterian, Châtelperronian and Uluzzian modelled ages.

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Acknowledgements

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) funded this work (NE/D014077/1). Additional funding was received from the Leverhulme Trust, through the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project, the NRCF (NERC Radiocarbon Facility) programme, Keble College (Oxford) and the European Research Council. We thank our many collaborators and their excavation teams, and all staff at the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit for their contribution to this work. Maps at −80 m below current sea level were produced by M. Devès and A. Scheder Black.

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Contributions

T.H. and R.J. conceived the project. T.H. obtained funding and directed the project. T.H., R.W., K.D., F.B., C.B.R. and A.Ma. performed pre-treatment chemistry, AMS dating and Bayesian analysis using OxCal. T.H., R.W., K.D., L.B. and R.J. sampled materials for AMS dating. T.H. and K.D. wrote the paper and all co-authors contributed to the draft. K.D. and T.H. produced the figures and illustrations. R.J., L.B., M.C., A.A., J.B., C.B.-R., C.Be., C.Bo., P.B., M.C., N.J.C., C.D., A.F., B.G., P.G., A.G.-M., S.G., P.H., B.H., M.-J.I.-C., A.J., J.F.J.P., J.-M.M.-F., J.M., M.M., L.M., E.M., A.Mo., F.N., E.P., M.P., S.P., M.d.l.R., J.R.-S., A.R., D.S., P.S., L.S., J.S., N.S., A.V. and R.P. provided permits and archaeological samples, expertise on site sequences and prior data for the modelling.

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Correspondence to Tom Higham.

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This file contains Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Text and Data for Archaeological sites in France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Greece, Belgium, United Kingdom, Lebanon and Russia and Supplementary references (see contents list for details). (PDF 4451 kb)

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Higham, T., Douka, K., Wood, R. et al. The timing and spatiotemporal patterning of Neanderthal disappearance. Nature 512, 306–309 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature13621

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