Neanderthals and the modern human colonization of Europe

Neanderthals and the modern human colonization of Europe

Extract from article, 2004.

Another scrapbook item.

Paul Mellars
Department of Archaeology, Cambridge University, Downing Street, Cambridge, CB2 3DZ, UK

The fate of the Neanderthal populations of Europe and western Asia has gripped the popular and scientific imaginations for the past century. Following at least 200,000 years of successful adaptation to the glacial climates of northwestern Eurasia, they disappeared abruptly between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago, to be replaced by populations all but identical to modern humans. Recent research suggests that the roots of this dramatic population replacement can be traced far back to events on another continent, with the appearance of distinctively modern human remains and artefacts in eastern and southern Africa.

Colonization of Europe from about 40,000 years ago.

Neanderthal–modern human interactions

Any model of this kind implies that there must inevitably have been numerous episodes of contact—and therefore potential interaction— between the expanding populations of modern humans and the indigenous Neanderthal populations across Europe. There is insufficient space here to review all of the related discussion that has emerged in the recent literature17,19,39–41. One point which now seems clear, however, is that the appearance of a number of apparently modern features of technology among some of the final Neanderthal communities of central and western Europe (notably the simple bone tools and a number of grooved or perforated animal-tooth pendants found in the Chatelperronian levels at Arcy-sur-Cure in Central France17,39,42) can be shown to coincide closely with the appearance of early Aurignacian populations in the nearby regions of central Europe, and probably with those along the Mediterranean coast.

 Early Aurignacian carved ivory animal and human figures from sites in southern Germany. a–c, Vogelherd Cave; d, Hohlenstein–Stadel Cave. The carvings represent the head of a cave lion (a), a horse (b), a mammoth (c) and a male human figure with the head of a cave lion (d).
review article

Such patterns of behavioural interaction and technological transfer between the local Neanderthal and intrusive anatomically modern populations are precisely what we would predict on the basis of examples of recent ethnic contact situations40, regardless of the respective cultural and cognitive capacities of the two populations. Whether the ability of the final Neanderthals to adopt some of these new patterns of technology can be taken to imply that they had brains effectively identical to those of the incoming modern
populations is currently a topic of lively but inconclusive debate. All that can be said is that if the evolutionary trajectories of the Neanderthal and modern populations had been separate for at least 300,000 yr—as all available genetic and anatomical evidence suggests—then the possibility of some divergence in neurological structures over this period cannot be ruled out. Equally, the possibility of some small degree of interbreeding between the two populations cannot be excluded on the basis of either the current anatomical or DNA evidence1,10 and would again seem plausible in anthropological and demographic terms.

However we visualize this situation, the reality is that all traces of distinctively Neanderthal patterns of mitochondrial DNA, as well as the distinctive anatomical features of Neanderthals, disappeared relatively rapidly from European populations. This probably reflects a straightforward case of direct competition for space and resources between the two populations, in which the demonstrably more complex technology and apparently more complex organization of the anatomically modern populations would have given them a strong competitive advantage over the Neanderthals. Some of the rapid climatic oscillations that have been documented over this time range may also have played a critical part in this
demographically competitive situation.


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