Early humans and their close cousins - the Neanderthals - might have coexisted in parts of Europe for about 2,600 and 5,400 years, a new study by the University of Oxford suggests. The researchers said that the two species had enough time to interbreed.

The study is also important because it shows that humans didn't rapidly replace Neanderthals and that pockets of Neanderthal communities lived alongside humans in Europe.

Thomas Higham of the University of Oxford and colleagues conducted the present study. They used new radiocarbon dates for about 200 samples of bone, charcoal and shell. The specimens came from 40 European sites - stretching from East Russia to Spain.

The researchers used mathematical models to piece together the chronology of Neanderthal and Human colonies in the region. The team said that both hominins had "ample time" to interbreed. Higham and colleagues aren't sure if the interbreeding occurred in Eurasia.

Neanderthals were the closest cousins of early Humans. They are often considered to be a sub-group of humans and devoid of any intelligence or social skills. Neanderthal groups completely disappeared from the world about 30,000 years ago. Other studies have shown that Neanderthals might have lived near the Arctic Circle around 31,000 to 34,000 years ago.

The current study estimates that the Neanderthals lived in Europe some 41,030 to 39,260 years ago.

"We believe we now have the first robust timeline that sheds new light on some of the key questions around the possible interactions between Neanderthals and modern humans. The chronology also pinpoints the timing of the Neanderthals' disappearance, and suggests they may have survived in dwindling populations in pockets of Europe before they became extinct,"   Higham added in a news release.

The research shows that humans didn't wipe out Neanderthals and that their disappearance "might have been more complex and drawn out than previously thought," Higham told Live Science.

The study is published in the journal Nature.