Were Neandertals and Modern Humans Just Ships in the Night?

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Researchers have long debated how long Neandertals stuck around after modern humans invaded their home territories in Europe and Asia around 40,000 years ago. Some say as long as 10,000 years; others think Neandertals went extinct almost immediately. A new radiocarbon dating study of a Neandertal site in Russia concludes that the latter scenario is most likely, and that Neandertals and modern humans were probably like ships in the night. But don’t expect this to be the last word on this contentious subject.

Neandertals and modern humans likely encountered one another at least twice during prehistory. The first time was at least 80,000 years ago in the Near East, as evidenced by findings of both Neandertal and modern human bones in caves in Israel. But the moderns, who came up from Africa, apparently did not venture any farther than the Near East at that time, possibly due to competition from the Neandertals who were then occupying much of Europe and Asia.

Then, shortly before 40,000 years ago, Homo sapiens—possibly now armed with more sophisticated technology and adaptive skills—began the massive migration that would take our species to pretty much everywhere on the globe, including the territories in Europe and Asia that were already occupied by Neandertals.

Recent genetic studies suggest that Neandertals and moderns interbred the first time but not the second. That has led some researchers to suspect that they were not neighbors for very long during the more recent overlap, especially in Europe. Some scientists, however, say that Neandertals hung on in “refugia” like southern Spain and Gibraltar until as late as 32,000 years ago. (All dates in this story are in calibrated radiocarbon years.)....

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