The ancestors of modern humans moved into and across Europe, ousting the Neanderthals, faster than previously thought, a new analysis of radiocarbon data shows.
Rather than taking 7,000 years to colonize Europe from Africa, the reinterpreted data shows the process may have taken only 5,000 years, scientist Paul Mellars from Cambridge University said in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.
“The same chronological pattern points to a substantially shorter period of chronological and demographic overlap between the earliest ... modern humans and the last survivors of the preceding Neanderthal populations,” he wrote.
The reassessment is based on advances in eliminating modern carbon contamination from ancient bone fragments and recalibration of fluctuations in the pattern of the earth’s original carbon-14 content.
Populations of anatomically and behaviorally modern humans first appeared in the Near East region about 45,000 years ago and slowly expanded into southeastern Europe.
Previously it was thought that this spread took place between 43,000 and 36,000 years ago, but the re-evaluated data suggests that it actually happened between 46,000 and 41,000 years ago — starting earlier and moving faster.
“Evidently the native Neanderthal populations of Europe succumbed much more rapidly to competition from the expanding biologically and behaviourally modern populations than previous estimates have generally assumed,” Mellars wrote.
He said the invasion could have been helped by a major change in climate that modern man would have been technologically and culturally better equipped to handle than the more primitive Neanderthals.
“There are increasing indications that over many areas of Europe, the final demise of the Neanderthal populations may have coincided with the sudden onset of very much colder and drier climatic conditions,” Mellars wrote.
“This could have delivered the coup de grace to the Neanderthals in many parts of western and central Europe in their economic and demographic competition with the incoming modern groups,” he added.