National Geographic News
Photo of a Neanderthal jaw bone with teeth intact.

A Neanderthal jawbone from Spain was among those dated for a new study that pushes back the date for the Neanderthals' demise.

Photograph by Thomas Higham, University of Oxford

Dan Vergano

National Geographic

Published August 20, 2014

The Neanderthals died out about 10,000 years earlier than previously thought, new fossil dating suggests, adding to evidence that the arrival of modern humans in Europe pushed our ancient Stone Age cousins into extinction. (Read "Last of the Neanderthals" in National Geographic magazine.)

Neanderthals' mysterious disappearance from the fossil record has long puzzled scholars who wondered whether the species went extinct on its own or was helped on its way out by Europe's first modern human migrants.

"When did the Neanderthals disappear, and why?" says Tom Higham of the United Kingdom's University of Oxford, who authored the new fossil dating study published on Wednesday in the journal Nature. "That has always been the big question."

His research bolsters the idea that Europe's first modern human arrivals played a role. The new fossil dating suggests that Neanderthals died out in isolated patches across western Europe, with small areas overlapping in mosaic fashion for thousands of years with the arrival sites of the first modern humans there.

A doughty branch of the early human family, Neanderthals were big-brained and thick-boned hunters who once ranged from Spain to Siberia. Neanderthals begin appearing in the fossil record more than 230,000 years ago and were thought to have dwindled to their last refuges about 30,000 years ago.

The results suggest that while Europe was a Neanderthal stronghold about 45,000 years ago, the species vanished within 5,400 years.

Neanderthal Isolation

The new finding relies on 196 samples of animal bones, shells, and charcoal taken from 40 Neanderthal cave sites reaching from Gibraltar to the Caucasus. Largely from prey species such as deer, bison, and mammoth, the bones all bear cut marks from a type of stone blade that Neanderthals used.

"Some previously dated bones were only loosely associated with Neanderthals," Higham says. "We wanted ones we were sure they had handled."

Dating those bones suggests that Neanderthals underwent a population decrease around 50,000 years ago that left them isolated in patches, just about the time that early modern humans arrived.

Competitive pressure from those early Europeans, who hunted many of the same prey species, may have helped isolate Neanderthals, hastening the extinction of a branch of humankind that had previously weathered ice ages and what geneticists call "population bottlenecks."

"In ecology when you see a species that is isolated and losing genetic diversity, you are seeing one that is often on the way out," Higham says. "I think most of my colleagues would agree that having modern humans around played some role in the disappearance of the Neanderthals."

The new arrivals may have spurred an era of stone tool use among the Neanderthals that overlaps with the arrival time of the new migrants.

But a large volcano that erupted in Italy around the time of Neanderthal demise may have hurt both populations. On top of that, a cooling climate event around 40,000 years ago in Europe may have "delivered the coup de grâce to a Neanderthal population that was already low in numbers and genetic diversity, and trying to cope with economic competition from incoming groups of Homo sapiens," says Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London.

Stringer praised the new research: "The overall pattern seems clear—the Neanderthals had largely, and perhaps entirely, vanished from their known range by 39,000 years ago."

In a commentary accompanying the study, archaeologist William Davies of the United Kingdom's University of Southampton said the study "has thrown down the gauntlet, and future researchers will need to try hard to demonstrate Neanderthal survival in Europe after 40,000 years ago."

Bones of Contention

Paleontologist Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St. Louis was critical, however, calling parts of the study "wrong" and suggesting that some of its samples weren't truly from Neanderthal layers at cave sites.

"This is nothing new or newsworthy," he said by email. "We have long known that the disappearance of Neandertals was a long, slow and complex process."

Trinkaus's research has supported sites in Spain as a last refuge for the Neanderthals, an idea the new study finds no evidence for.

A study co-author and radiocarbon dating expert, Rachel Wood of the Australian National University in Canberra, defended the samples, noting that the cave layer dates conform to independently dated volcanic ash measures. The ages of the layers also made sense, such that "the dates at the bottom of the site are older than those at the top. This is completely different to the situation ten years ago where dates were often completely mixed."

More accurate dating at Neanderthal sites in recent years has generally pushed back the 30,000-year date for Neanderthal extinction, says paleontologist Katerina Harvati of Germany's University of Tuebingen, making the new study results look more reasonable. "In my view this work represents the foundation of a uniform chronological framework for Neanderthal studies," she said by email.

In recent years, studies of Neanderthal genes retrieved from ancient fossils have revealed that early modern humans mated with their cousins in antiquity. This interbreeding is thought to have happened more than 60,000 years ago and has left traces in about one to two percent of the gene maps of modern people of non-African origin.

The Neanderthal genes that turn up in people today are from this older era, after the two species were in contact but well before Neanderthal extinction. The intermingling seen in the new study took place after that early interbreeding era, Higham says. That's not to say that they didn't continue to mate during the later European overlap in ranges, he adds, but any genes transferred during those liaisons haven't turned up so far in genetics research.

Follow Dan Vergano on Twitter.

105 comments
Peter Tsouras
Peter Tsouras

So Bertrand Russell blames murderous fear on God.  Hmm?  Why is it then that the greatest and most heartless mass murderers in history were atheists - the Nazis and communists?  Hitler said famously, "You cannot be a German and a Christian," and openly despised Christianity because it made the Germans too weak and compassionate.  He also stated that Islam was the only religion he could respect.  Russell apparently didn't learn any deeper truth when he interviewed Lenin during the Russian Civil War.  He reported that Lenin was giggling as he related how the Bolsheviks had shot thousands of hostage children.


Also to all you who ascribe to all of Christianity the wackiness of some fundamentalists, there is a much larger Christian community friendly to science and reason than you give credit to.  The Greek Orthodox Church, for example, works on the principle that if science can prove something, the church will accept it.  Do not forget that it was Christianity that fostered the development and transmission of the tools of reason that led to the growth of science and the modern world.  Read some history, and not just by hostile left wing critics, and learn something instead of making fashionable and shallow attacks on the moral core of you own civilization.


Getting back to the Neanderthals, one disadvantage they had vis a vis modern humans was the inability to throw a missile weapon effectively.  It is believed, based upon the numerous broken bones among Neanderthals, that they brought down their big game by directly attacking it with thrusting spears leading to a lot of severe injuries.  And their bones were stronger and thicker than ours!

trae poisel
trae poisel

hasn't there been found in study sites of later neanthertals of pierced shells for jewelry too . like a little forget me not from a modern man? 

Philip Olson
Philip Olson

New humans arrived and the tools used for hunting changed.  Were the new tools more efficient? easier to make and more penetration?  It would make sense to use the newer designs, even for older humans.

Humans rationalize from scant evidence, but eventually evidence becomes overwhelming and consensus is arrived at.  I await further research and unambiguous findings.

Our shared DNA is an unambiguous fact of shared territory over time, other facts will also resolve with more information.

Dan H
Dan H

OK, so the demise of the neanderthals was about the start of the last glaciation. You mention that but discount it. 

How about explaining why a long cooling trend where temps drop 40 degrees on average did not affect these people without fire or shelters?


David Zimmerman
David Zimmerman

The one thing that the Atheists and Fundamentalist Christians seem to AGREE upon (just read all these posts) are that: any Scientist, who happens to be a Christian, cannot believe that the world is 4.3 billion yrs old, or that humans evolved from earlier primates (etc.). Of course, both these camps choose to perpetrate this fallacy. And so they argue still.


There are the hard truths of the physical reality that have been discovered, honed and expanded upon since we first used a tool. The scientific method is the cornerstone of this approach to the search for truth.


There are the central truths of our identity that have grown, blossomed and bore fruit since we first hummed a lullaby or buried a loved one. This is the domain of Art, and the foremost art of each culture is its religion. 


Each of us are situated at the intersection of these orthogonal truths. As individuals we may favor one or the other. We denigrate the "other" and so weaken ourselves.


Shawn Driscoll
Shawn Driscoll

I've always wondered what role disease had to play when modern humans encountered relatively isolated group of Neanderthal.  History has shown that newly introduced disease to an isolated population has often had catastrophic results.  Its difficult to identify disease from  most skeletal remains so one surmises that it is not commented on by archeologists.

Dennis Sheridan
Dennis Sheridan

Quite frankly I could give a fig  as to when Neanderthals went extinct, they are and that is part of the continual adaptation of man kind, adapt or die.  What concerns me now is the survival of mankind in it's present state.  We have certified nut cases in charge of countries that could take us to war at the slightest word.  We have a religion that is bound on taking us back to a medieval world.  And we have people who don't seem able to step back and think about a situation with a clear head, but would rather run off into the streets and destroy property and steal things.  These fools are driven on by rabble rousers of all stripes that fan the flames while dancing with glee. 


We in the here and now need to put our shoulders to the wheel and straighten out this period in time.  The past isn't going anywhere it will still be there after we take care of the present.

sherri cavan
sherri cavan

Unfortunately, spoken language leaves no traces. Yet we know that articulate speech is dated to around 40,000 years ago, about the same time as this great transformation from Neanderthal to us. Clearly, this new code must have provided an enormous advantage to those who possessed it, above and beyond the technology of shoe tools.

Ali B.
Ali B.

"the bones all bear cut marks from a type of stone blade that Neanderthals used."

Yes but unfortunely, men from our shape, named sapiens sapiens god know why, used the same tools, had sex intercourse with their neighbors as everyone do, so it's very hard tio know at this time which tool belongs to whom. The only thing manifeste is that the shape of neanderthal diseapear after a while, so that may be an evolution and not an extinction, you got it ?

John Smith
John Smith

Time has obscured the story of what happened to Neanderthal man.  But some of their DNA is in scattered within modern human populations.  The interbred and although they disappeared forever, there is a little cave man in some if not all of us.

Linda Davis
Linda Davis

I think the survival or modern man over the Neanderthal is simply a built in part of survival, not unlike most other animal species.  Those with the most territory and access to food are more likely to survive and raise their young.  Only the strongest and most savvy are likely to make it long term.  Nothing has changed over the centuries, except we have become more sophisticated and now have bigger and better weapons.  But make  no mistake, we are still driven by the same survival instincts as always in our species.

Kelly Parker
Kelly Parker

Science at least ATTEMPTS to find the truth, continually questioning previous findings as we move forward.

Schwenk Y
Schwenk Y

Jeez humans are really the terrors of the planet aren't we? First Neanderthals next it will be the California Smelt! 


For crying out loud I wish some democrats would save the planet from human scurge.

Louis Cruse
Louis Cruse

Neanderthals were gentile hunter/gathers that were run out of the neighborhood by tribal gangs of Homo Sapiens who worship an invisible sky god that teaches death and destruction of all non-believers. Those same tribal gangs are operating today as shia and sunni Muslims, catholics, jews, mormons,  baptist, and T-Pee/Repubs throughout the world.


Scientists(?) can make SWAGs about when one group died out but NOT why. They are still postulating why there are no dinos still around. Everyone knows they missed Noah's boat.


"Collective fear," Bertrand Russell wrote in "An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish" in 1943, "stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity towards those who are not regarded as members of the herd . . . Fear generates impulses of cruelty, and therefore promotes such superstitious beliefs as seem to justify cruelty. Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear." I believe that "fear" is instilled in children by their parents, as was done to them. That "fear' is the FEAR OF GOD(S).


Prove any of this "wrong".

Melanin Man
Melanin Man

Neanderthals were only found in Europe?  Modern man migrated from Africa?  Throughout the 19th and 20th century this was not  being taught.  Now that Leaky and others have long since died its popular to believe that all the Neanderthals died out.  They did not.  The Neanderthal genes are only found in non-Africans for a reason.  The descendants of Neanderthals are sill here.

John Martin
John Martin

Good God, these so called scientists have no clue why the Neanderthals died off. Another knucklehead blaming humans for everything under the sun. Just because someone has a string of college degrees doesn't make them intelligent, wise or give them cognitive abilities! Someone wasted a ton of money on education!


David Zimmerman
David Zimmerman

@Dan H The Neanderthals had fire and shelter (as mentioned in the article where the charcoal was found in their caves). They left amazing paintings on the walls of many sites that could only be viewed with fire light. They buried their dead with flowers and covered with ochre. They also played music, the oldest known musical instrument is a flute carved from a swan bone (the Divje Babe flute) about 55k years ago.


Nick Cave
Nick Cave

By the way who says that they dissapear' Maybe they yust mix with us...

Sam Hill
Sam Hill

If you wait for the democrats all is lost. They have trouble deciding which side of a bagel to butter. And that's on a good day.

William Parker
William Parker

@Louis Cruse

It’s easy to prove your first paragraph wrong because there are plenty of prominent conservatives who are atheist; Charles Krauthammer is on fox news like every day.You have Hemant Mehta who is also on tv and giving speeches internationally.There are reportedly thousands of atheist republicans subscribed to patheos.com.Same with the tea party. The goal of the tea party is to divorce Washington from Wall Street so that everyone in the democracy has the same amount of power; not just rich people controlling the DC agenda.You don’t need a god to support that. Just common sense.

There is only 1 truth.Whether that truth comes from a religious priest or a scientist, if they are not the same, then one or both of them are wrong.So “true” religion and “true” science must be the same thing. Either way there’s only one truth.

So I could make the same claim about the disappearance of Neanderthals from the same perspective without using God.Watch:

I see in the world today that Hispanics are responsible for spreading 3rd world disease, human trafficking, child prostitution, drug trafficking, organ stealing, and gang violence in America.Even with religious killings in Iraq, Ciudad Juarez alone has more murders than that entire country.Since the war on drugs began in Mexico in 2006, over 23,000 people have gone missing and suspected dead or in slavery to the Mexican drug cartels.Not to mention the rest of Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, USA and the gang murders taking place there. Many cities in the U.S were friendly, safe, thriving communities.As soon as Hispanics migrated, those places turned into drug infested, graffitied gang centers, forcing nice people to move out or live in fear of gang violence.

I therefore conclude that the gangster Sapien Cartels used and murdered the Neanderthals for economic gain and territory control over their rivals, forcing them into extinction.

Prove me wrong lol.

R P
R P

@Louis Cruse I read part of the quote with the opposite interpretation.  First the quote: Bertrand Russell wrote in "An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish" in 1943, "stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity towards those who are not regarded as members of the herd...."

If you are the "herd" of believers in God and there are a lot of us, scientist included, not in the "herd" (Russell's word, not mine) of non-believers in God, then some of those non-believers will be "ferocious" in their opposition to you, who have done nothing cruel to them.

Another example, if you believe in Climate Change, but think it is more good than bad, as it will allow crops to be grown to feed people in colder climes, then you are not in the majority herd.  Or if you think polar bears will do just fine with a grizzly bear lifestyle, then you are derided by the intolerant majority of people afraid of climate change.

George Leone
George Leone

@Louis Cruse  Prove WHAT wrong? What have you said besides a personal rebellion rant? And what does any of what you said have to do with the substance of the article?

Bob Ingersoll
Bob Ingersoll

@Melanin Man

We never left. My gene map indicates 3.2% Neanderthal, which is in the 99th percentile. Happy hunting...

Sam Hill
Sam Hill

You are definitely correct and I can prove it. Just read some of these comments, I rest my case.

Tim Murphy
Tim Murphy

@John Martin This must be about the big conspiracy of global warming right!

What do these knuckleheads who went to school for 10 years in their field of study know. Let's ask Rush Limbaugh!

H Jack McCunn
H Jack McCunn

@Chelsea Schmitt Science is about how things are done.  Religion is about who does it.  Being able to analyze a cake and come up with the recipe does not prove that there was no cook.  

K O
K O

@Chelsea Schmitt 

Religion? which one?

Don't answer that, it's a rhetorical question. You are misunderstanding the "religions" in general. :(

Jose L. Martinez
Jose L. Martinez

@Chelsea Schmitt 

This is not about proving religion wrong, but about proving other paleontologists wrong. Give them a couple more weeks and they come up with  another theory, them old bones sure like to talk!!!! lol

Suzanne Thomas
Suzanne Thomas

@Sam Hill Your Analogy is so innate it's not funny! Republicans REFUSE to do ANYTHING that would BENEFIT ANYONE BUT THEMSELVES! WHY does EVERYTHING have to be POLITICAL with your kind? Typical! 

J G.
J G.

@George Leone @Louis Cruse  I think what Louis is saying is that if we believed what the religious scientists say, that would mean that all other groups of scientist like paleontologists, geneticists, astronomers, geologists, physics (quantum and otherwise) & chemistry professionals, teachers and collage professors and anybody else who's job or hobby it is that has anything to do with anything that is older than about 10,000 years, is wrong. That would mean they are ALL wrong because if we take the Bible literally, it couldn't be true because there was nothing anywhere over, say, 10,000 years max ago. Now I think most people find that a little hard to believe that our geologists and geneticists etc. could be that wrong, but that IS what some people are saying.

So I'm sorry Louis if this wasn't close to what you were saying but I think and feel that if religion wants to survive another 100 years they are going to NEED to come to the conclusion that the Bible, Koran or any other religious book is NOT a book of science. That everything in it isn't complete fact and some things might just be overly exaggerated. That much I know is true. If the people that run the Christian museums that say that man walked this earth with T-Rex's and Pterodactyl's stick to those beliefs, religion as we know it today wont be around 100 years from now.

Those people that believe that Earth is only 7,000 years old today, are like the medieval Christians 1,000 years ago. Where they strictly believed that the Earth was the center of the universe and that all things rotated around us on our flat Earth. I wonder where we would be at today if we just took the Bibles word literally? Where we as humans would be if we never questioned the teachings? Would we still be believing that the world was flat? That we are the center of the universe? That God created everything as we know it in 7 days about 7,000 years ago? I don't know about you, but I am sure glad we had people that weren't afraid to question what the Bible teaches us and to actually go out and form their OWN ideas and theories rather than believing what the church had taught them. I know we wouldn't be where we are today if those pioneers didn't have the guts to questions the church's teachings...

Schwenk Y
Schwenk Y

@Tim Murphy @John Martin Ok Tim. Keep bowing down to the priests of your religion sceince. Complete with scientists who pretend their theories are gospel. Then when everything the preached for decades is proven wrong then come along with more cold hard "fact".

Tim Murphy
Tim Murphy

@H Jack McCunn @Chelsea Schmitt 

Science is about proving things do exist. You cannot prove that something doesn't exist. The scientific way of trying to find out if a creator exists is to weigh all the evidence and come up with a theory. Some scientists believe, others don't.

Tim Murphy
Tim Murphy

@Pablo Antequera @Chelsea Schmitt 

Well I agree that religion shouldn't have been introduced here, but it's hard to prove that something doesn't exist. Why, there's an invisible flying unicorn flying over your head right now! Now prove me wrong!

R P
R P

@J G.  @George Leone don't know where we would be today, if the Muslim scientists (and others) had not preserved the writings of the ancient Greeks--a lot of this scholarship was in Spain, where my wife is from--that allowed Europe to have its Renaissance (rebirth of learning and progress that we benefit from).  So the world view that religion has only caused problems not progress is pure bunk.  The 10 Commandments were better than the laws of the other ancient cultures.  Would non-believers have preferred to live in ancient Egypt?

R P
R P

@J G. First, it would be what SOME religious scientists say....  You even admit that it is literalists, but I would say even among "literalist thinkers" there are differing opinions on this.  I'm an amateur scientist as far as these topics as I studied chemical engineering and physics, different fields, but to me, a "scientist and believer in God", The Hebrew Bible talks about only Adam's family, those whose spirits were God's children.  It does not preclude any earth history before that, nor animal spirits in animal bodies that could be were Adam and Eve got their bodies from.  But once God gave them spirits that were his spiritual offspring, then they are different than everything that went before.

Korri Galbraith
Korri Galbraith

@Schwenk Y @Tim Murphy @John Martin  yeah the cold hard fact.... What would that be exactly? That nobody knows? That everybody likes to assume they do though. The one fact is this. Long ago people who had not yet wandered into science made the same assumptions and wrote religious texts with their explanations of what they think happened. Why anybody thinks religion is any different, or more/less reliable than science is beyond me. It's just educated guessing. The only thing that has changed is the type of education people set as a standard... Religion/science.... Same things different time. Nothing can be proven really in either case. There are simply those that convince and those willing to be convinced.

Korri Galbraith
Korri Galbraith

@Tim Murphy @H Jack McCunn @Chelsea Schmitt  Neither have been proven wrong. MORE IMPORTANT, to any person with a free thinking mind. Neither have EVER been proven correct. One is theory based on the current standard of education, the other is theory based on a 2000 year old standard of understanding before we recorded and educated ourselves as a public in THEORY that we want to believe to be true. Religion/Science same things. Get over it. Science never proves why anything happens. It simply explains the method in which it happens to the best of our current abilities. Which is all religion was able to do 2000 years ago before most people could do much other than kill, eat, crap, and sleep. They are both tools used by very convincing individuals to keep at ease those who would be so easily convinced of the diatribe being spilled in front of them! To deny that is to admit your ignorance of human nature, or to simply admit you are not observant of it in any way shape or form. If that is the case, you're not really living. You are just wasting air. To fight about either of these things, claiming "science" you can not possibly begin to understand is more or less useful than books written thousands of years ago by people basically still in the stone age is just stupid. It is very entertaining to watch you try sway another with anger, fear, and hatred into believing your point of view to be truth. Or simply lashing out at your fellow human beings because what they believe is different than you. Neanderthals haven't gone anywhere. They are just using computers now and calling each other names on the internet in the name of faith and/or science!

Rixse Ixe
Rixse Ixe

@R P @J G. @George Leone Enough of Bible thumping my friend. The root cause for all evil in the world is (1) power (2) religion (3) race. As for your claim about 10 commandments better than the laws of the other ancient cultures, the very first commandment preaches hatred towards every other human being, who has a different belief "1. You shall have no other gods before Me." Isn't that is what is being claimed by priests in Church, Synagogue or Mullahs in mosque.

Rixse Ixe
Rixse Ixe

@Korri Galbraith Wrong! try again. Science is based on numbers and facts, hypotheticals aside. Religion is simply based on thought process.

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