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26 February 2006
Radiocarbon review rewrites European prehistory

The ancestors of modern man moved into and across Europe, ousting the Neanderthals, faster than previously thought, a new analysis of radiocarbon data shows. Rather than taking some 7,000 years to colonize Europe from Africa, the reinterpreted data shows the process may only have taken 5,000 years, scientist Paul Mellars from Cambridge University said in the science 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.
     For years, it had been thought that modern humans from Africa began arriving in Western Europe at least 40,000 years ago, and so could have competed and mingled with the local population for at least 12,000 years. The revised dating of fossils and artifacts leaves much less time when the two could have been in close contact. Mellars concludes from the revised chronology that the overlap between Neanderthals and new arrivals must be shortened to about 6,000 years in Central and Northern Europe, perhaps only 1,000 to 2,000 years in regions like western France.
     "Evidently the native Neanderthal populations of Europe succumbed much more rapidly to competition from the expanding biologically and behaviorally modern populations than previous estimates have generally assumed," Mellars wrote. He said the invasion could have been helped by a major change in the climate which modern man would have been technologically and culturally better equipped to deal with 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.
     Katerina Harvati, a paleontologist at the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, said the advances "can potentially lead to a breakthrough in our understanding of this critical time period in European prehistory." Mellars cautioned that even the revised dating based on new research must be viewed as provisional, concluding, "The full implications of these studies for the interpretation of the human archaeological and evolutionary record will need to be kept under active and vigilant review."
 
Sources: International Hherald Tribune, Reuters, Yahoo! News (22 February 2006)

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