Scholars have long wondered why Neanderthals disappeared—and exactly when. Recent estimates date their last days to 30,000 years ago, but a new take using sophisticated radiocarbon dating suggests their rapid decline actually happened between 40,000 and 45,000 years ago. Based on this timing, the findings also suggest that the arrival of modern humans to areas in Europe once dominated by Neanderthals may be more than mere coincidence, reports National Geographic. "I think most of my colleagues would agree that having modern humans around played some role in the disappearance of the Neanderthals," the lead researcher says.
Describing their findings in Nature, the researchers say they tested samples of animal bone, shell, and charcoal from 40 sites, mainly Neanderthal caves in western Europe. Because younger molecules can contaminate fossil records and make radiocarbon dating less reliable, the team extracted collagen from the bones to remove any contaminants, reports the New York Times, and in those instances the fossils looked as many as 10,000 years older than previously thought. The improved dating has some scientists convinced, though mainly tools were tested rather than Neanderthal bones, and paleontologists disagree about whether those tools belonged to Neanderthals, homo sapiens, or both. (And if humans had an advantage over Neanderthals, it probably wasn't superior intelligence.)