Neanderthals were far smarter than previously thought as researchers have confirmed that our ancient cousins were responsible for producing tools and artefacts earlier argued by some to be exclusively in the realm of modern human cognitive abilities.
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Using ancient protein analysis, the team took part in an international research project to confirm the disputed origins of more than 40,000-year-old bone fragments in Chatelperron, France.
Led by the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, researchers set out to settle the debate as to whether hominin remains in the Grotte du Renne, an archaeological site in Arcy-sur-Cure, France, date to Neanderthal ancestry or whether they indicate the first evidence of modern humans in Europe.
"To differentiate between modern humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans on the basis of ancient protein research provides really exciting opportunities for future research into the origins of our and their evolutionary history," said lead author Frido Welker from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
Known as the Chatelperronian industry due to numerous artefacts and body ornaments found in this area of central France and northern Spain, the area is critical to the debate regarding the extent of Neanderthal cognition, their replacement by modern humans and eventual extinction.
Despite intense research, the exact biological nature of the Châtelperronian people has previously been disputed, with no direct molecular data for a Neanderthal association obtained.
However, using peptide mass fingerprinting for rapid, low-cost detection of hominin remains, the team identified 28 additional hominin specimens among previously unidentifiable bone fragments at the Grotte du Renne.
"For the first time, this research demonstrates the effectiveness of recent developments in ancient protein amino acid analysis and radiocarbon dating to discriminate between Late Pleistocene clades," study co-author Matthew Collins, Professor at the University of York in Britain said.
"To identify proteins related to specific developmental stages of bone formation highlights one of the main strengths of this new analysis, especially in a multi-disciplinary context," Collins noted.
The findings were reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.