London, Aug 21 :
Neanderthals, the closest extinct relatives of modern humans who lived in Europe and Asia, did not disappear because of humans, a promising study reveals.
Instead, they were living contemporaneously for quite some period of time in different parts of Europe, providing plenty of time for cultural exchange and interbreeding, it added.
Researchers estimate that humans and Neanderthals overlapped for up to 5,400 years in parts of southern Europe, yet to a much lesser extent or not at all in other parts of the continent.
“There is still no evidence that humans and Neanderthals interbred while in Europe but thousands of years of overlap makes sex more likely. I do like the idea that they are not really extinct and they do live on in us,” said lead researcher Tom Higham, an archaeologist from University of Oxford.
According to the new findings, Neanderthals disappeared from Europe between about 41,000 and 39,000 years ago.
The coexistence also supports a controversial idea that some Neanderthal artefacts emerged from contact with humans.
To find this, researchers used 196 radiocarbon dates of organic remains to show that Neanderthals disappeared from Europe around 40,000 years ago, but still long after humans arrived in the continent.
They analysed bone, charcoal and shell materials from 40 archaeological sites from Russia to Spain.
First, they used a chemical pretreatment to remove the contaminating carbon from the collagen in bones.
They they measured the minuscule amounts of radiocarbon using a particle accelerator.
The technique allowed archaeologists to redraft the prehistory of Europe cave by cave.
The findings also showed that modern humans did not kill Neanderthals.
“Neanderthals may not even have truly disappeared, but instead have been assimilated into modern human populations,” Higham noted.
A recent study suggests that about 1.5 to 2.1 percent of the DNA of anyone outside Africa today is Neanderthal in origin.
Higham hopes that the new timeline will address other mysteries surrounding Neanderthals such as why they died out and how they interacted with humans.