- Neandertals Ranged Much Farther East Than Thought
for National Geographic News
October 1, 2007
Neandertals made it all the way to Siberia, some 1,200 miles (2,000
kilometers) farther east than previously thought, new DNA evidence
Scientists have long known that Europe was a stomping ground for the
Neandertals (often spelled Neanderthals), with the human cousins
spreading throughout the Mediterranean between around 200,000 and
30,000 years ago.
Until now, though, experts had believed present-day Uzbekistan in
Central Asia to be the easternmost extent of the Neandertal range (see
a map of the region). Beyond this point the evidence becomes sparse.
"Our findings show that Neandertals were more widespread and thus even
more successful than previously thought," said Svante Pääbo, a
geneticist at the Max-Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in
Leipzig, Germany, who carried out the DNA analysis.
The analysis appears online this week in the journal Nature.
Teeth, Bones, and Tools
Tantalizing finds of Neandertal-style stone tools in Asia, along with
fragments of hominid bones and teeth, had hinted that the species had
expanded deeper into the continent, experts say.
But scientists have never been able to verify the theory from such
small pieces of bone.
Using a relatively new DNA technique, however, Pääbo and his
colleagues were able to glean information from the minute fragments.
(Related: "Neandertal Gene Study Reveals Early Split With Humans"
[October 26, 2006].)
The scientists analyzed the Asian remains' mitochondrial DNA, or
mtDNAgenetic material from the cell's powerhouses that is passed from
mother to childand compared it to mtDNA from Neandertal fossils found
Fragments found in a cave in the Altai region of southern Siberia
matched the European data, indicating that the Siberian bone fragments
belonged to Neandertals rather than modern humans.
In addition, Pääbo and his colleagues were able to confirm that a
partial skeleton of a child found in Uzbekistan's Teshik-Tash cave was
also a Neandertal.
"No one seriously believed that there was some type of fence in
Uzbekistan that would have kept them from moving further to the
eastwe just didn't have the evidence one way or the other," said
Leslie Aiello, an anthropologist at the Wenner-Gren Foundation for
Anthropological Research in New York, who wasn't involved in the study.
"I think we can be cautiously confident that these fossils came from
European Neandertal stock."
Carbon dating of the Siberian bone fragments places them between
30,000 and 38,000 years oldnear when the Neandertals are thought to
have disappeared from the fossil recordbut it is possible that they
ventured east long before then.
(Related: "Neandertals' Last Stand Was in Gibraltar, Study Suggests"
[September 13, 2006].)
"The environment of the Altai between 35,000 and 50,000 years ago is
known to have fluctuated considerably, from conditions similar to the
present day through to very cold steppe-tundra," said Chris Stringer,
a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London, who
wasn't involved in the study.
"It seems likely that the Neandertals periodically extended their
range to these regions when conditions allowed, and retreated or died
out when they deteriorated again."
Aiello of the Wenner-Gren Foundation agreed.
The Neandertals "may have been occupying these regions during the
warmer climate fluctuations and not during the really cool snaps, or
perhaps during the summers and not the winters," she said. "We really
Another possibility is that the Neandertals took advantage of a warm
period around 125,000 years ago, when the Caspian Sea was drastically
reduced in size.
"This may have facilitated the expansion of the Neandertals into
central Asia and southern Siberia," study leader Pääbo said.
To Mongolia and Beyond
Given that the Neandertals got as far as Siberia, there is no reason
why they might not have gone further still, experts said.
"I have no doubt that Neandertals could have migrated further to the
eastto Mongolia or China," Aiello said. "There would have been
nothing to stop them."
Little archaeological work has been done in the Far East on the topic,
but archaeologists are excited at the prospects.
"There is one intriguing fragmentary skull from Maba in China
[Guandong Province] which does show some Neandertal resemblances,"
Stringer, of the Natural History Museum, said.
"It would be interesting to see if it had any ancient DNA, and whether
this was Neandertal-like or represented another distinct lineage of