Neandertals Ranged Much Farther East Than Thought

Kate Ravilious
for National Geographic News
October 1, 2007
Neandertals made it all the way to Siberia, some 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) farther east than previously thought, new DNA evidence suggests.

Scientists have long known that Europe was a stomping ground for the Neandertals (often spelled Neanderthals), with the human cousins spreading throughout the Mediterranean between around 200,000 and 30,000 years ago.

Until now, though, experts had believed present-day Uzbekistan in Central Asia to be the easternmost extent of the Neandertal range (see a map of the region). Beyond this point the evidence becomes sparse.

"Our findings show that Neandertals were more widespread and thus even more successful than previously thought," said Svante Pääbo, a geneticist at the Max-Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who carried out the DNA analysis.

The analysis appears online this week in the journal Nature.

Teeth, Bones, and Tools

Tantalizing finds of Neandertal-style stone tools in Asia, along with fragments of hominid bones and teeth, had hinted that the species had expanded deeper into the continent, experts say.

But scientists have never been able to verify the theory from such small pieces of bone.

Using a relatively new DNA technique, however, Pääbo and his colleagues were able to glean information from the minute fragments. (Related: "Neandertal Gene Study Reveals Early Split With Humans" [October 26, 2006].)

The scientists analyzed the Asian remains' mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA—genetic material from the cell's powerhouses that is passed from mother to child—and compared it to mtDNA from Neandertal fossils found across Europe.

Fragments found in a cave in the Altai region of southern Siberia matched the European data, indicating that the Siberian bone fragments belonged to Neandertals rather than modern humans.

In addition, Pääbo and his colleagues were able to confirm that a partial skeleton of a child found in Uzbekistan's Teshik-Tash cave was also a Neandertal.

"No one seriously believed that there was some type of fence in Uzbekistan that would have kept them from moving further to the east—we just didn't have the evidence one way or the other," said Leslie Aiello, an anthropologist at the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research in New York, who wasn't involved in the study.

"I think we can be cautiously confident that these fossils came from European Neandertal stock."

Fair-Weather Visitors?

Carbon dating of the Siberian bone fragments places them between 30,000 and 38,000 years old—near when the Neandertals are thought to have disappeared from the fossil record—but it is possible that they ventured east long before then.

(Related: "Neandertals' Last Stand Was in Gibraltar, Study Suggests" [September 13, 2006].)

"The environment of the Altai between 35,000 and 50,000 years ago is known to have fluctuated considerably, from conditions similar to the present day through to very cold steppe-tundra," said Chris Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London, who wasn't involved in the study.

"It seems likely that the Neandertals periodically extended their range to these regions when conditions allowed, and retreated or died out when they deteriorated again."

Aiello of the Wenner-Gren Foundation agreed.

The Neandertals "may have been occupying these regions during the warmer climate fluctuations and not during the really cool snaps, or perhaps during the summers and not the winters," she said. "We really don't know."

Another possibility is that the Neandertals took advantage of a warm period around 125,000 years ago, when the Caspian Sea was drastically reduced in size.

"This may have facilitated the expansion of the Neandertals into central Asia and southern Siberia," study leader Pääbo said.

To Mongolia and Beyond

Given that the Neandertals got as far as Siberia, there is no reason why they might not have gone further still, experts said.

"I have no doubt that Neandertals could have migrated further to the east—to Mongolia or China," Aiello said. "There would have been nothing to stop them."

Little archaeological work has been done in the Far East on the topic, but archaeologists are excited at the prospects.

"There is one intriguing fragmentary skull from Maba in China [Guandong Province] which does show some Neandertal resemblances," Stringer, of the Natural History Museum, said.

"It would be interesting to see if it had any ancient DNA, and whether this was Neandertal-like or represented another distinct lineage of early humans."

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