In the latest study1, Higham and his former graduate student Rachel Wood, now at the Australian National University in Canberra, tried to date remains from 11 sites on the Iberian Peninsula using their decontamination methods. Previous efforts put the remains as young as 36,000 years old.PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.1207656110
However, Wood and Higham found that just two of the sites — Jarama, outside Madrid, and Cueva del Boquete de Zafarraya, near the southern tip of Spain — contained bones with enough carbon to be dated. Their work suggests that these remains are more than 45,000 years old, with some older than 50,000 years, the practical limit of carbon dating. Wood says that the team’s study calls into question evidence that the last populations of Neanderthals found refuge in the Iberian Peninsula.
Radiocarbon dating casts doubt on the late chronology of the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition in southern Iberia
Rachel E. Wood et al.
It is commonly accepted that some of the latest dates for Neanderthal fossils and Mousterian industries are found south of the Ebro valley in Iberia at ca. 36 ka calBP (calibrated radiocarbon date ranges). In contrast, to the north of the valley the Mousterian disappears shortly before the Proto-Aurignacian appears at ca. 42 ka calBP. The latter is most likely produced by anatomically modern humans. However, two-thirds of dates from the south are radiocarbon dates, a technique that is particularly sensitive to carbon contaminants of a younger age that can be difficult to remove using routine pretreatment protocols. We have attempted to test the reliability of chronologies of 11 southern Iberian Middle and early Upper Paleolithic sites. Only two, Jarama VI and Zafarraya, were found to contain material that could be reliably dated. In both sites, Middle Paleolithic contexts were previously dated by radiocarbon to less than 42 ka calBP. Using ultrafiltration to purify faunal bone collagen before radiocarbon dating, we obtain ages at least 10 ka 14C years older, close to or beyond the limit of the radiocarbon method for the Mousterian at Jarama VI and Neanderthal fossils at Zafarraya. Unless rigorous pretreatment protocols have been used, radiocarbon dates should be assumed to be inaccurate until proven otherwise in this region. Evidence for the late survival of Neanderthals in southern Iberia is limited to one possible site, Cueva Antón, and alternative models of human occupation of the region should be considered.