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Neanderthals and humans shared cave

A single cave in France was home to Neanderthals, modern humans, and hyenas at roughly the same time 40,700 years ago, according to a new study.

The finding, primarily based on analysis of fossil remains, confirms earlier speculation that Neanderthals and humans competed with carnivores for food and prehistoric real estate.

It also strengthens the link between humans and Neanderthals, suggesting they did socialise and interbreed, despite some DNA evidence to the contrary.

The findings are published in today's issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"There is an abundant corpus of literature that shows that when modern humans spread across Europe, they variably absorbed the Neanderthals into those populations," says author Erik Trinkaus, professor of anthropology at Washington University.

"This shows up in scattered anatomical traits during the following 10,000 to 20,000 years, and the Neanderthal traits gradually fade out."

Trinkaus and his colleagues analysed remains from the cave of Les Rochers-de-Villeneuve in Vienne, France.

Like an ancient high-rise block of units, the cave complex has several levels. Evidence for the unlikely trio of species was found on the same floor, level J.

At the centre of the analysis is a femur bone



This fragment of left femur found at a cave in France is evidence that Neanderthals used the same shelter as modern humans (Image: PNAS)


DNA tests reveal that the bone's genetic sequence contains unique combinations not associated with modern humans and not attributable to contamination. Instead, the DNA fits with prior Neanderthal sequencing.

Toothy bites on the bone show that hyenas either killed or scavenged upon the Neanderthal's flesh.

That evidence, combined with hyena bones, suggests hyenas and Neanderthals were in the cave at around the same time, but probably not together, since they viewed each other as dinner.

"They alternated use of the caves in short succession," says Trinkaus. "They could not have been there at the same time."

Jennifer Viegas

Discovery News, 3 May 2005

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