By Michael Price
Croatia’s scenic Vindija Cave was thought to be a potential trysting site for Neandertals and early modern humans some 32,000 years ago. Now, a new study questions that idea, using a more exacting form of radiocarbon dating to suggest instead that Neandertals used the cave 40,000 years ago—some 8000 years before modern humans lived in that part of Europe. If true, the find casts doubt on the long-held assumption by some that the two hominids overlapped in the region.
“Many of us have long suspected [this],” writes Erik Trinkaus, a biological anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis who wasn’t involved in the work, in an email. He points out that the dating of sites across Europe have generally put the Neandertal’s demise there about 40,000 years ago. “This article puts to rest an anomalous occurrence of late Neandertals in this region, and allows us to move on from it.”
In the late 1990s, researchers dated the Neandertal remains from the cave, which included fragments of skulls, thighs, and other assorted bones, using radiocarbon dating, which measures an isotope known as carbon-14 that decays over time at a fixed rate. By seeing how much carbon-14 is left, scientists can get a roughly accurate idea of when the Neandertal lived. Using the carbon-14 in bone collagen from skull fragments and other bones found inside the cave, the original studies returned an estimated age of 29,000 to 34,000 years old. That was about the same time that early modern humans moved into Europe—as evidenced by modern human remains and tools also found in the cave—raising the specter that the two groups met, competed, and even mated with one another.
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