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You are here: Home / Library / RBINS Staff Publications 2021 / Reevaluating the timing of Neanderthal disappearance in Northwest Europe

Thibaut Devièse, Grégory Abrams, Mateja Hajdinjak, Stéphane Pirson, Isabelle De Groote, Kévin Di Modica, Michel Toussaint, Valentin Fischer, Dan Comeskey, Luke Spindler, Matthias Meyer, Patrick Semal and Tom Higham (2021)

Reevaluating the timing of Neanderthal disappearance in Northwest Europe

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(12):e2022466118.

Understanding when Neanderthals disappeared is a hotly debated topic. When radiocarbon dating placed the Spy Neanderthals amongst the latest surviving in Northwest Europe, questions were raised regarding the reliability of the dates. Using a procedure more efficient in removing contamination and ancient genomic analysis, we show that previous dates produced on Neanderthal specimens from Spy are too young by up to 10,000 y. Our direct radiocarbon dates on the Neanderthals from Spy and those from Engis and Fonds-de-Forêt show a reduction of the uncertainty for the time window corresponding to Neanderthal disappearance in Northwest Europe. This population disappeared at 44,200 to 40,600 cal B.P. (at 95.4% probability). This is also earlier than previous suggestions based on dates on bulk collagen.Elucidating when Neanderthal populations disappeared from Eurasia is a key question in paleoanthropology, and Belgium is one of the key regions for studying the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition. Previous radiocarbon dating placed the Spy Neanderthals among the latest surviving Neanderthals in Northwest Europe with reported dates as young as 23,880 ± 240 B.P. (OxA-8912). Questions were raised, however, regarding the reliability of these dates. Soil contamination and carbon-based conservation products are known to cause problems during the radiocarbon dating of bulk collagen samples. Employing a compound-specific approach that is today the most efficient in removing contamination and ancient genomic analysis, we demonstrate here that previous dates produced on Neanderthal specimens from Spy were inaccurately young by up to 10,000 y due to the presence of unremoved contamination. Our compound-specific radiocarbon dates on the Neanderthals from Spy and those from Engis and Fonds-de-Forêt demonstrate that they disappeared from Northwest Europe at 44,200 to 40,600 cal B.P. (at 95.4% probability), much earlier than previously suggested. Our data contribute significantly to refining models for Neanderthal disappearance in Europe and, more broadly, show that chronometric models regarding the appearance or disappearance of animal or hominin groups should be based only on radiocarbon dates obtained using robust pretreatment methods.All the radiocarbon data generated at the ORAU are archived internally and are also available on the laboratory’s website, along with a link to the paper. The mitochondrial genome from Fonds-de-Forêt is deposited in GenBank with the accession number PRJEB39136. All other study data are included in the article and/or SI Appendix.

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