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Speleothem record attests to stable environmental conditions during Neanderthal–modern human turnover in southern Italy

An Author Correction to this article was published on 13 July 2020

This article has been updated


The causes of Neanderthal–modern human (MH) turnover are ambiguous. While potential biocultural interactions between the two groups are still little known, it is clear that Neanderthals in southern Europe disappeared about 42 thousand years ago (ka) after cohabitation for ~3,000 years with MH. Among a plethora of hypotheses on Neanderthal extinction, rapid climate changes during the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition (MUPT) are regarded as a primary factor. Here we show evidence for stable climatic and environmental conditions during the MUPT in a region (Apulia) where Neanderthals and MH coexisted. We base our findings on a rare glacial stalagmite deposited between ~106 and ~27 ka, providing the first continuous western Mediterranean speleothem palaeoclimate archive for this period. The uninterrupted growth of the stalagmite attests to the constant availability of rainfall and vegetated soils, while its δ13C–δ18O palaeoclimate proxies demonstrate that Apulia was not affected by dramatic climate oscillations during the MUPT. Our results imply that, because climate did not play a key role in the disappearance of Neanderthals in this area, Neanderthal–MH turnover must be approached from a perspective that takes into account climatic and environmental conditions favourable for both species.

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Fig. 1: Cave samples.
Fig. 2: PC time series.
Fig. 3: PC versus Mediterranean records.

Data availability

Data supporting this study are available in Supplementary Table 1 and Supplementary Table 2.

Change history


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We thank all local speleologists that helped with the 2014 and 2019 fieldwork at Pozzo Cucù, Sant’Angelo, Zaccaria and Messapi caves: G. Loperfido, S. Inguscio, G. Ragone, P. Lippolis, A. Lacirignola, D. Leserri, M. Marraffa, O. Lacarbonara, F. Semeraro, S. Calella, P. Calella, C. Pastore, C. Marchitelli, R. Romanazzi, R. Cupertino, G. Caló and F. Lorusso (Gruppo Speleologico Martinese, CARS Altamura, Gruppo Speleologico Neretino, Gruppo Ricerche Carsiche Putignano, Gruppo Puglia Grotte and Gruppo Escursionistico Speleologico Ostunense), as well as the Bellanova family for access to Messapi Cave. A.C., J.D.W. and V.C. are also grateful to all members of Gruppo Speleologico Martinese for their logistic help and warm hospitality in Martina Franca. Thanks also to M. Parise (University of Bari) for help during 2014 fieldwork; A. Reina (Polytechnic University of Bari) for his enthusiasm in supporting this research; V. Casulli and R. Laragione of Castellana Grotte for their interest in supporting this study; M. Wimmer and M. Luetscher (Innsbruck University) for their help during laboratory work; L. Pisani (Bologna University) for the DEM figure used in Extended Data Fig. 1; and L. Calabrò (Bologna University) for drilling of sample SA1. A.C. is supported by Leonardo Da Vinci Grant 2019 (DD MIUR, no. 787, 15/04/2019); S.B. is supported by ERC grant no. 724046—SUCCESS (, and H.C. by NSFC grant no. 41888101. This research received financial contributions from both Grotte di Castellana and Federazione Speleologica Pugliese.

Author information




A.C. and V.C. conceived and designed the experiments. A.C., V.C., C.S., J.H. and H.C. performed the experiments. A.C. and S.B. analysed the data. A.C., V.C., C.S., S.B. and J.D.W. contributed with materials and analysis tools. A.C. wrote the paper with input from all co-authors.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Andrea Columbu.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Cave locations and sampling.

a) Apulia region with colour-coded topography; black dots indicate major caves in Puglia (from, while red circles report caves explored for this project. b) PC stalagmite found close to its original growth position. c) PC milling subsampling for δ18O and δ13C.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Intra-millennia events.

Intra-stadial and interstadial events recorded by PC δ18O compared to Greenland ice core δ18O (24). The events are reported, in both curves, with grey shading.

Extended Data Fig. 3 PC from DO 23 to 19.

Similarities between Chinese speleothem δ18O (orange curve26), PC δ18O (blue curve, this study) and Greenland ice core δ18O (green curve15) from ~110 to ~65 ka, during DO events 23 to 19.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Growth rate and [234/238U]i.

Comparison between PC δ13C, growth rate, δ18O and [234/238U]i.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Materials.

Speleothems (except PC, Fig. 1 main text) examined in this study. Blue rectangles indicate the location of sampling for U-Th dating.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Age model.

Top: comparison between StalAge and COPRA 2σ range and the resulting average age model used in this work. Bottom: Propagation of positive and negative 2σ uncertainty in the various age models. U-Th ages are shown by yellow dots and black 2σ error bars.

Extended Data Fig. 7 Hendy test.

Subsamples were extracted from individual growth lamina. δ13C-δ18O correlation (r) provided for each tested layer. The absence of a strong correlation between δ13C and δ18O and of a systematic increase from the centre to the flank indicate that calcite was deposited under quasi-equilibrium conditions (see Hendy test discussion for details).

Supplementary information

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Table 1

U–Th dataset.

Supplementary Table 2

Stable isotope time series.

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Columbu, A., Chiarini, V., Spötl, C. et al. Speleothem record attests to stable environmental conditions during Neanderthal–modern human turnover in southern Italy. Nat Ecol Evol 4, 1188–1195 (2020).

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