“LAST NEANDERTHALS” is the new major research project Synergy funded with 13 million euros by the European Research Council (ERC), which will seek answers to these questions by extending archaeological research beyond the context of Western and Central Europe. LAST NEANDERTHALS will expand archaeological investigations to sites in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, and even further east, to those in Western and Central Asia, in order to shed light on the chain of events that led to the extinction of Neanderthals. LAST NEANDERTHALS is the first ERC Synergy Grant won by the University of Bologna. Stefano Benazzi, a professor at the Department of Cultural Heritage, is the project coordinator. In addition to the University of Bologna, the project is conducted by the University of Siena with PI Francesco Berna and the University of Haifa with PI Omry Barzilai, in collaboration with the University of Pisa and the University of Cologne.
“To convincingly reconstruct the chain of events that led to the extinction of the Neanderthal, we need new and broader archaeological data,” explain Benazzi, Berna, and Barzilai. “The information we have collected so far mainly comes from archaeological sites in Western and Central Europe. Now, we want to expand research to Western and Central Asia and Eastern and Southeastern Europe.” Before their sudden disappearance approximately 40,000 years ago, Neanderthals survived for about 350,000 years in a vast territory that stretched from the Iberian Peninsula to southern Siberia. However, today we know that most of the Neanderthal remains have been found in peripheral areas compared to where the last Neanderthals lived. By expanding investigations to archaeological sites in Eastern and Southeastern Europe and even further east to those in Western and Central Asia, the scholars of LAST NEANDERTHALS will focus on the areas where interactions between Neanderthals, Denisovans, and Homo sapiens occurred.
“For the first time, we will work synergistically in these regions to gain a more detailed understanding of the decline of the Neanderthals,” Benazzi adds. “We will collect and model new cultural, biological, and environmental data with high resolution, with the goal of providing an unprecedented perspective on the population dynamics of the last Neanderthals and offering a comprehensive and convincing explanation of the mechanisms that led to their extinction.”