Our Ancient Neanderthal Relatives Went Extinct Much Later Than We Thought

A photo taken on July 2, 2008 in Eyzies-de-Tayac, Dordogne, shows a model representing a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory. Neanderthal brains were adapted to allow them to see better and maintain larger bodies, according to new research by the University of Oxford and the Natural History Museum, London. Pierre Andrieu/AFP/Getty Images

Our ancient relatives survived thousands of years longer than experts previously thought, according to a new study.

The research—which is published in the journal Heliyon—found that after Neanderthals died in most regions of the world, some lived in what's now Spain for an additional 3,000 years.

The findings come from more than ten years of work conducted by researchers from around the globe, who shoveled new sites in Spain. Their time-consuming efforts led them to find items, like stone tools, which they believe were used about 37,000 years ago.

"In three new excavation sites, we found Neanderthal artifacts dated to thousands of years later than anywhere else in Western Europe," João Zilhão, lead author of the study, said in a statement. "Even in the adjacent regions of northern Spain and southern France the latest Neanderthal sites are all significantly older."

In other parts of Europe, the Neanderthals are believed to have become extinct between 40,000 and 42,000 years ago, the authors note in their published paper. But, the Neanderthals who lived in what was then called Southern Iberia, lagged behind.

"The lag implies the presence of an effective barrier to migration and diffusion across the Ebro river depression, which, based on available paleoenvironmental indicators, would at that time have represented a major biogeographical divide," Zilhão and his colleagues wrote in their paper.

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A visitor looks at 'El Neandertal Emplumado', a scientificly based impression of the face of a Neanderthal who lived some 50,000 years ago by Italian scientist Fabio Fogliazza during the inauguration of the exhibition 'Cambio de Imagen' (Change of Image) at the Museum of Human Evolution in Burgos on June 10, 2014. Cesar Manso/AFP/Getty Images

Their findings reveal that the evolutionary pattern and modern human emergence was anything, but straightforward. Rather, it was "uneven and punctuated."

"We believe that the stop-and-go, punctuated, uneven mechanism we propose must have been the rule in human evolution, which helps explaining why Paleolithic material culture tends to form patterns of geographically extensive similarity while Paleolithic genomes tend to show complex ancestry patchworks," Zilhão said.

Despite dying off thousands of years ago, humans today still contain genetic mutations of the Neanderthals, a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Buffalo revealed.

Although we're constantly discovering new knowledge about our ancient ancestors, there's still much to be learned. In order to so, Zilhão advises archaeologists to focus their efforts on new sites, rather than continually exploring old ones.

"There is still a lot we do not know about human evolution and, especially, about the Neanderthals," Zilhão said. "Our textbook ideas about Neanderthals and modern humans have been mostly derived from finds in France, Germany and Central Europe, but during the Ice Ages these were peripheral areas: probably as much as half of the Paleolithic people who ever lived in Europe were Iberians. Ongoing research has begun to bear fruit, and I have no doubt that there is more to come."