We were really thrilled to see the publication of our research paper on the chronology of the Vindija Neanderthals out this week in the early edition section of PNAS. This is the culmination of a lot of work spent going to Croatia to work on material with our colleague Ivor Karavanic and his team, the dating work; based on the extraction of hydroxyproline (HYP), the genetics; done by our colleagues in Leipzig at the Max Planck, and the ZooMS analysis; done in Manchester and Oxford. The results, taken together, demonstrate just how inter-disciplinary the world of Neanderthals and the Palaeolithic has become. Thibaut Devièse, the lead author on the paper, remarked the other day what a great team experience the whole project was, with everyone participating in the research and contributing together to the final result.
The paper describes the redating of Neanderthal remains recovered from Vindija Cave (Croatia). Initial dates, done in the 1990s, revealed surprisingly recent results: 28,000–29,000 B.P. This implied the remains could represent a late-surviving, refugial Neanderthal population and suggested they could have been responsible for producing some of the early Upper Paleolithic artefacts more usually produced by anatomically modern humans. We used a more robust purification method targeting the amino acid hydroxyproline (see link). The results showed that all the Neanderthal remains are from a much earlier period (>40,000 cal B.P.). The revised dates change our interpretation of this important site and demonstrate that the Vindija Neanderthals probably did not overlap temporally with early modern humans, who we think arrive in the region much later.
We also applied ZooMS methods to hunt for human bone fragments in the bone assemblage excavated from the site. Despite the overwhelming presence of bear in the assemblage, Cara Kubiak (working on the site for her MSc dissertation), in collaboration with Mike Buckley of the PalaeoChron team, managed to find a fragment of human bone that was later identified by Svante Pääbo, Petra Korlevic, Mateja Hajdinjak and their team, as a Neanderthal. (see picture left).
The bone has a small cut-mark, and a clear gouge or clipping mark on the top right side in the image.
We think that for dating important human material from the Palaeolithic, that HYP is the way to go. Human bone is often conserved and contaminated in the lab, from people who are trying to preserve the material. This human-derived contamination is often hard to remove and can sometimes be of high molecular weight, which means that our routine methods don't get rid of it. HYP dating is the only method that gives us reliable results and the Vindija results, as well as those we have previously done from sites like Kostenki 14 and Sungir, show this clearly.
Devièse,T, Karavanić, I., Comeskey, D., Kubiak, C., Korlević, P., Hajdinjak, M., Radović, S., Procopio, N., Buckley, M., Pääbo, S and Higham, T. 2017. Direct dating of Neanderthal remains from the site of Vindija Cave and implications for the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) doi: 10.1073/pnas.1709235114