Neandertals and moderns mixed, and it matters

Joao Zilhao

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

149 Citations (Scopus)


Twenty-five years ago, the Middle-to-Upper Paleolithic transition in Europe could be represented as a straightforward process subsuming both the emergence of symbolic behavior and the replacement of Neandertals by modern humans. The Aurignacian was a proxy for the latter, during which enhanced cognitive capabilities explained ornaments and art. The few instances of Neandertal symbolism were deemed to long postdate contact and dismissed as "imitation without understanding," if not geological contamination. Such views were strengthened by the recent finding that, in southern Africa, several features of the European Upper Paleolithic, including bone tools, ornaments, and microliths, emerged much earlier. Coupled with genetic suggestions of a recent African origin for extant humans, fossil discoveries bridging the transition between "archaics" and "moderns" in the realm of anatomy (Omo-Kibish, Hertio) seemingly closed the case. Over the last decade, however, taphonomic critiques of the archeology of the transition have made it clear that, in Europe, fully symbolic sapiens behavior predates both the Aurignacian and moderns. And, in line with evidence from the nuclear genome rejecting strict replacement models based on mtDNA alone, the small number of early modern specimens that passed the test of direct dating present archaic features unknown in the African lineage, suggesting admixture at the time of contact.

In the realm of culture, the archeological evidence also supports a Neandertal contribution to Europe's earliest modern human societies, which feature personal ornaments completely unknown before immigration and are characteristic of such Neandertal -associated archeological entities as the Chatelperronian and the Uluzzian. The chronometric data suggest that, north of the Ebro divide, the entire interaction process may have been resolved within the millennium centered around 42,000 calendar years ago. Such a rapid absorption of the Neandertals is consistent with the size imbalance between the two gene reservoirs and further supports significant levels of admixture.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)183-195
Number of pages13
JournalEvolutionary anthropology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2006


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