Cold Climates Contributed to the Extinction of the Neanderthals

Cold Climates Contributed to the Extinction of the Neanderthals


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Climate change may have played a more important role in the extinction of Neanderthals than previously believed, according to a new study published in the journal, Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences .

A team of researchers from a number of European and American research institutions, including Northumbria University, Newcastle, have produced detailed new natural records from stalagmites that highlight changes in the European climate more than 40,000 years ago.

They found several cold periods that coincide with the timings of a near complete absence of archaeological artifacts from the Neanderthals, suggesting the impact that changes in climate had on the long-term survival of Neanderthal man.

Layers of Evidence

Stalagmites grow in thin layers each year and any change in temperature alters their chemical composition. The layers therefore preserve a natural archive of climate change over many thousands of years.

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The most common speleothems including layered stalagmites. Image: Dave Bunnell / CC BY-SA 2.5

The researchers examined stalagmites in two Romanian caves, which revealed more detailed records of climate change in continental Europe than had previously been available.

The layers of the stalagmites showed a series of prolonged extreme cold and excessively dry conditions in Europe between 44,000 and 40,000 years ago. They highlight a cycle of temperatures gradually cooling, staying very cold for centuries to millennia and then warming again very abruptly.

The researchers compared these palaeoclimate records with archaeological records of Neanderthal artifacts and found a correlation between the cold periods - known as stadials - and an absence of Neanderthal tools.

This indicates the Neanderthal population greatly reduced during the cold periods, suggesting that climate change played a role in their decline.

Cold Culls the Neanderthals

Dr Vasile Ersek is co-author of the study and a senior lecturer in physical geography in Northumbria University's Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences. He explained:

The Neanderthals were the human species closest to ours and lived in Eurasia for some 350,000 years. However, around 40,000 years ago - during the last Ice Age and shortly after the arrival of anatomically modern humans in Europe - they became extinct.For many years we have wondered what could have caused their demise. Were they pushed 'over the edge' by the arrival of modern humans, or were other factors involved? Our study suggests that climate change may have had an important role in the Neanderthal extinction.

The researchers believe that modern humans survived these cold stadial periods because they were better adapted to their environment than the Neanderthals.

More than the control over fire was needed to combat the cold conditions. ( CC0)

Fire Control Couldn’t Halt the Neanderthal Extinction

Neanderthals were skilled hunters and had learned how to control fire , but they had a less diverse diet than modern humans, living largely on meat from the animals they had successfully pursued. These food sources would naturally become scarce during colder periods, making the Neanderthals more vulnerable to rapid environmental change.

In comparison, modern humans had incorporated fish and plants into their diet alongside meat, which supplemented their food intake and potentially enabled their survival.

Dr Ersek said the research team's findings had indicated that this cycle of "hostile climate intervals" over thousands of years, in which the climate varied abruptly and was characterized by extreme cold temperatures, was responsible for the future demographic character of Europe.

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Repeated long cold spells were too much for the Neanderthals to deal with. (Image: Jonathan Meyer )

"Before now, we did not have climate records from the region where Neanderthals lived which had the necessary age accuracy and resolution to establish a link between when Neanderthals died out and the timing of these extreme cold periods," he said, "But our findings indicate that the Neanderthal populations successively decreased during the repeated cold stadials.

"When temperatures warmed again, their smaller populations could not expand as their habitat was also being occupied by modern humans and this facilitated a staggered expansion of modern humans into Europe.

"The comparable timing of stadials and population changes seen in the archaeologic and genetic record suggests that millennial-scale hostile climate intervals may have been the pacesetter of multiple depopulation-repopulation cycles. These cycles ultimately drew the demographic map of Europe's Middle-Upper Paleolithic transition."


Did Humans Once Wipe Out Neanderthals? Here's What We Know

After 400,000 years of roaming Europe and Asia, Neanderthals disappeared. Why this happened is a contentious topic amongst experts. It is possible that our ancestors may have directly or indirectly contributed to this extinction, but the extent of our role remains to be determined.

Our distant cousins, the Neanderthals, lived for around 400,000 years in Europe and some parts of Asia. From 80,000 years ago, their populations began to decrease, and, eventually, they disappeared 50,000 years later.

Our species, Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa around 200,000 years ago. Around the time that the Neanderthal populations were decreasing, H. sapiens began leaving the African continent and populating Asia and Europe.

Did our ancestors simply move into the territories Neanderthals had left behind, or was their movement north the reason for the Neanderthals' downfall? We asked 16 experts in paleoanthropology whether H. sapiens drove Neanderthals to extinction – the consensus was 'uncertain' with a score of 50 percent. Here is what we found.


Climate Change Likely Iced Neanderthals Out Of Existence

About 40,000 years ago, Neanderthals began disappearing from Europe, but exactly why they died out is a mystery. Some paleoarchaeologists have hypothesized it’s possible they simply couldn’t reproduce fast enough to keep up with the modern humans moving into Europe around that time. Others suggest modern humans slaughtered any bands of Neanderthal they came across or infected them with novel diseases. And some suggest that an environmental catastrophe, like a volcanic eruption in Europe, killed off many plants and animals.

Related Content

Researchers propose a new hypothesis this week that suggests our bipedal brethren weren’t equipped to stand a cold spell that accompanied two long periods of extended climate change that took place around the time the species began its decline, Malcolm Ritter at the Associated Press reports.

To investigate the climate of central Europe during the age of Neanderthals, researchers looked at stalagmites in two Romanian caves. According to a press release, like trees, stalagmites grow thin new layers each year. Temperature influences the size and chemical composition of the calcium carbonate layers. Each layer includes isotope data about rainfall, soil bacteria that reveals the fertility of the land and other information that can help create a detailed annual climate record. In this case, the cave formations provided the most detailed record of climate change in Europe available so far.

Ritter reports that the new palaeoclimate records show that a particularly cold, dry period began about 44,000 years ago and lasted 1,000 years. Another cold dry period began, 40,800 years ago, lasting about 600 years. It was cold enough that average temperatures dropped to below zero, creating year-round permafrost.

Those climate disruptions correspond to the archaeological record, which shows that at the same time Neanderthals began to disappear from the Danube River Valley and in France, the heart of their territory, while early signs of modern humans begin to appear. The paper appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

“For many years we have wondered what could have caused their demise. Were they pushed ‘over the edge’ by the arrival of modern humans, or were other factors involved?” co-author Vasile Ersek of the University of Northumbria in England says in the release. “Our study suggests that climate change may have had an important role in the Neanderthal extinction.”

The double-dose of super-cold weather likely radically changed the environment, transforming the open woodlands of central Europe into Arctic-like steppes, reports Ariel David at Haaretz. Early humans with more adaptable strategies likely moved into former Neanderthal territory and did not actively kill the species off.

“It seems we are off the hook for that one,” says lead author Michael Staubwasser of the University of Cologne, Germany.

The researchers aren’t necessarily suggesting that modern humans didn’t have a hand in the end of Neanderthals. There is some evidence that there was violence between the species. But David reports that in 2014 the latest known Neanderthal bones were re-dated and found to be 40,000 years old, not 30,000 years old as previously believed.

So, instead of having a 15,000 year window to outcompete and exterminate Nenderthals, humans, who only entered Europe 45,000 years ago, only had a few thousands years to make contact and wipe out the species. That scenario is unlikely, meaning that another factor, like climate change, probably also had a hand in reducing Neanderthal numbers.

It’s possible that the Neanderthal population crashed during that first cold period. When the second one happened, the remaining small bands of Neanderthals were likely absorbed into human populations, as evidenced by the Neanderthal DNA in the genome of modern humans.

So why did Neanderthals die out during these climate shifts while modern humans survived? The researchers suggest that because Neanderthals relied heavily on protein from large game animals they had trouble adapting when climate change impacted populations of those animals. Homo sapiens, on the other hand, were more adaptive, eating a variety of plants, fish and meat, meaning they could survive on the cold steppe.

Rick Potts, a human origins expert at The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, tells Ritter that the paper suggests a different dynamic between humans and our close cousins. “As has been said before, our species didn’t outsmart the Neanderthals,” he says. “We simply outsurvived them. The new paper offers much to contemplate about how it occurred.”

Not everyone is convinced by the research. Israel Hershkovitz, a physical anthropologist at Tel Aviv University, tells David that Neanderthals went through a lot of cold snaps before the ones 45,000 years ago and weathered them fine, so it doesn’t make sense that this one event would impact them so heavily. He also questions whether the climate record from caves in Romania can accurately represent all of Europe, saying there is evidence that other parts of the continent had a mild climate in the same period.

However, the researchers point out that the cold spells didn’t just impact Neanderthals. They continued to ice out modern humans after the Neanderthals disappeared each time one culture of ancient humans disappeared in the face of a changing climate, another culture replaced them when the world warmed up again.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.


Climate Change Contributed to Neanderthals’ Demise, Study Suggests

Neanderthals in a cave. Image credit: Tyler B. Tretsven.

“Our research uncovers a pattern showing that cold, harsh environments were stressful for Neanderthals,” said lead author Dr. Jamie Hodgkins, from the University of Colorado Denver.

Dr. Hodgkins and co-authors analyzed the remains of prey animals and found that Neanderthals worked especially hard to extract every calorie from the meat and bones during colder time periods.

The team examined bones discovered in caves once inhabited by Neanderthals in southwestern France for marks demonstrating how the carcasses of deer and other animals were butchered and used for food.

“If cold climates stressed Neanderthals, their subsistence behaviors may have changed — requiring intensified use of prey through more extensive nutrient extraction from faunal carcasses,” the scientists said.

“To test this, an analysis of Neanderthal butchering was conducted on medium sized bovid/cervid remains composed of predominately red deer (Cervus elaphus), reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), and roe deer (Capreolus caprelous) deposited during global warm and cold phases from two French sites: Pech de l’Azé IV and Roc de Marsal.”

During colder, glacial periods, the bones were more heavily processed. In particular, they showed higher frequencies of percussion marks, indicating a nutritional need to consume all of the marrow, probably signaling reduced food availability.

“As the climate got colder, Neanderthals had to put more into extracting nutrients from bones,” Dr. Hodgkins said.

“This is especially apparent in evidence that reveals Neanderthals attempted to break open even low marrow yield bones, like the small bones of the feet.”

The findings further support the hypothesis that changing climate was a factor in Neanderthal extinction.

“Our results illustrate that climate change has real effects,” Dr. Hodgkins said.


Key Differences in the Neanderthal Brain Reveal Explanation for Extinction

About 40,000 years ago, our closest relatives, the Neanderthals, went extinct. But the mystery of how they died is a paleoanthropological cold case, with many clues but no definitive answers. Cannibalism, a rapidly changing climate, natural disasters, and disease have all been blamed. A study published Thursday in Scientific Reports introduces yet another culprit to the list: the structure of the Neanderthal brain itself.

What the paper argues, in other words, is that ancient humans likely had a leg up in terms of cognitive abilities compared to their Neanderthal relatives. It was a fundamental difference in brain morphology, argue the international team of scientists that wrote the paper, that allowed Homo sapiens to thrive and damned Neanderthals to extinction. While ancient humans and Neanderthals had brains of a similar size, previous research showed that human brains are more globular while Neanderthal brains were more elongated horizontally. In the new study, the scientists posit that the humans living alongside Neanderthals had brains with a larger cerebellum — which may have given them a social and cognitive advantage.

The evolutionarily ancient cerebellum, or “little brain,” makes up 10 percent of the human brain’s volume but contains about 50 percent of its neurons. This very important region of the brain has long been linked to physical activity, like standing and breathing, but recent studies have suggested it’s important in shaping conscious human behavior as well. “As the cerebella hemispheres are structured as a large array of uniform neural modules, a larger cerebellum may possess a larger capacity for cognitive information processing,” the scientists write. “Such a neuroanatomical difference in the cerebellum may have caused important differences in cognitive and social abilities between the two species and might have contributed to the replacement of Neanderthals by early Homo sapiens.”

The study authors came to this conclusion after using the CT scans of the skulls of four Neanderthals and four ancient humans to construct virtual 3D casts of the skulls. They then gathered MRI data from the brains of 1,185 study volunteers to create a model of the average human brain, which was then “deformed” to fit into the virtual skull casts. Because the genetic divergence between Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans took place relatively recently, the study authors argue that the present-day human brains are a reasonable stand-in for early human brains. Virtually squishing the human brain model into the virtual Neanderthal skulls, they found “that early Homo sapiens had relatively larger cerebellar hemispheres but a smaller occipital region in the cerebrum than Neanderthals long before the time that Neanderthals disappeared.”

And because cerebellar volume is linked to abilities like cognitive flexibility, language processing, and working memory capacity, the scientists argue larger cerebellar hemispheres may have helped humans survive and adapt to a dangerous world while Neanderthals could not.

That’s not to say that Neanderthals were just sacks of meat in comparison — we know now that they buried their dead and created art, cultural touchstones signifying symbolic thinking — but the differences in brains does hint that our direct ancestors may have advantageous cognitive abilities. Still, that difference in brains didn’t keep ancient humans from hooking up with them — which has allowed Neanderthals, in a small way, to live on.


Cold, dry climate shifts linked to Neanderthal disappearance

In this 2013 photo provided by Bogdan Onac, researcher Vasile Ersek stands in the Ascunsa Cave in Romania. Scientists say ancient shifts in climate helped our species replace Neanderthals in Europe. Researchers used data from this cave and another to document two lengthy cold and dry periods. The report, released Monday, Aug. 27, 2018, by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found these periods coincided with the disappearance of Neanderthals and the arrival of our species in specific places. (Bogdan Onac via AP)

Ancient periods of cold and dry climate helped our species replace Neanderthals in Europe, a study suggests.

Researchers found that such cold periods coincided with an apparent disappearance of our evolutionary cousins in different parts of the continent, followed by the appearance of our species, Homo sapiens.

"Whether they moved or died out, we can't tell," said Michael Staubwasser of the University of Cologne in Germany.

Neanderthals once lived in Europe and Asia but died out about 40,000 years ago, just a few thousand years after our species, Homo sapiens, arrived in Europe. Scientists have long debated what happened, and some have blamed the change in climate. Other proposed explanations have included epidemics and the idea that the newcomers edged out the Neanderthals for resources.

Staubwasser and colleagues reported their findings Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They drew on existing climate, archaeological and ecological data and added new indicators of ancient climate from studies of two caves in Romania.

Their study highlighted two cold and dry periods. One began about 44,000 years ago and lasted about 1,000 years. The other began about 40,800 years ago and lasted six centuries. The timing of those events matches the periods when artifacts from Neanderthals disappear and signs of H. sapiens appear in sites within the Danube River valley and in France, they noted.

The climate shifts would have replaced forest with shrub-filled grassland, and H. sapiens may have been better adapted to that new environment than the Neanderthals were, so they could move in after Neanderthals disappeared, the researchers wrote.

Katerina Harvati, a Neanderthal expert at the University of Tuebingen in Germany who wasn't involved in the study, said it's helpful to have the new climate data from southeastern Europe, a region that H. sapiens is thought to have used to spread through the continent.

But she said it's unclear whether Neanderthals disappeared and H. sapiens appeared at the times the authors indicate, because the studies they cite rely on limited evidence and are sometimes open to dispute.

Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London said he thought the paper made a good case for an impact of the climate shifts on Neanderthals, although he believes other factors were also at work in their disappearance.

Rick Potts of the Smithsonian Institution called the study "a refreshing new look" at the species replacement.

"As has been said before, our species didn't outsmart the Neanderthals," Potts said in an email. "We simply outsurvived them. The new paper offers much to contemplate about how it occurred."


Did climate kill off the Neanderthals?

And if the experience of our ancient relatives the Neanderthals is anything to go by, we should take note of the warnings.

Recent research has suggested that climate change may have been the killer blow that finished off our closest evolutionary cousins.

For about 400,000 years, the Neanderthals dominated Europe, hunting big game such as mammoth and bison.

These hardy cavemen and cavewomen survived one Ice Age after another. But eventually, their luck ran out. For reasons which remain unclear, Neanderthal populations went into terminal decline.

By 35,000 years ago, the Neanderthals had vanished from most parts of Europe. But in 2006, scientists dropped a bombshell.

They had found evidence that a small population of survivors clung on in Iberia - modern Spain, Portugal and Gibraltar - until much more recently.

This evidence came from radiocarbon dates obtained from Neanderthal campfires in Gorham's Cave, a natural shelter cut into the Rock of Gibraltar.

Professor Clive Finlayson led the research: "You had Neanderthals - in our opinion - quite late from some of the dates and by late we're talking in terms of 24,000, some would say 28,000.

"Either way, much more recent than the latest estimates, some of which were putting them at 30,000, the last ones and some of them as far back as 35,000."

Professor Jose Carrion, who researches ancient ecosystems at the University of Murcia, Spain, comments: "Southern Iberia, especially the southern coastal shelf was an area of high biodiversity and resources - food and water. The Neanderthals inhabited open spaces - such as grasslands, dry lands, but also mixed oak, pine and juniper forests, savannah, rocky habitats.

"There were various different types of animals. So there were many possibilities for survival here. It was a good place to stay, which was not the situation at this time in northern and central Europe."

But a few thousand years later, even this population was gone. What wiped out this last band of survivors? Two years ago, Clive Finlayson's team claimed to have found a key piece in the jigsaw puzzle.

Professor Finlayson says: "What we found was a climatic event in the marine core, taken offshore from the Iberian margin. We found confirmation of other people's results that there was a moment when the sea surface temperatures are the lowest for the previous quarter of a million years.

"We have other suggestions of climatic features from the core suggesting that for a short period of time things got really quite tough."

This event, known as Heinrich Event 2, could have caused severe drought conditions in Iberia, affecting the supplies of food and water for the last isolated bands of Neanderthal hunters.

But this was one of a number of Heinrich Events which occurred over a period of several thousand years. If climate was crucial in seeing off the last Neanderthals in Iberia, could it have played a role in the decline and eventual disappearance of the Neanderthals in other places?

Scientists have always envisaged an important role for our direct ancestors - Homo sapiens - in the Neanderthal extinction across Europe and Asia. After all, modern humans arrive on the scene just as the Neanderthals start to vanish. Surely that was too much of a coincidence, wasn't it?

Professor Chris Stringer, of London's Natural History Museum: "For many years, people assumed that it was an overall superiority of modern humans: that modern humans were more intelligent, that they had better technology, or had more effective adaptations.

"They thought that when they came into Neanderthal regions, the Neanderthals very quickly disappeared, because they were out-competed. What we've learnt recently, is that the story was much more complicated. There probably wasn't a single cause of the Neanderthal extinction. They may have died out in different places for different reasons."

But an exceptionally cold and variable climate might have driven the disappearance of Ice Age animals upon which the Neanderthals relied for food.

In addition, climate change probably cleared Europe of its forests, creating an open environment that did not favour the Neanderthals. Had the role of our ancestors in the Neanderthal extinction been overstated?

Back in the UK, Clive Finlayson's research had piqued the interest of Chronis Tzedakis, a professor at the University of Leeds: "One of my main interests is to place various events on land in their broader climate context of what is going on generally in the North Atlantic and European areas. So my immediate reaction was, what was climate doing at that time?"

But putting archaeological finds - including the evidence from Gibraltar - in their climatic context is problematic.

This is because calendar dates and radiocarbon dates do not exactly match up.

"The radiocarbon chronometer is like a clock that is sometimes running faster, and sometimes stops," says Professor Tzedakis.

"So there are differences between radiocarbon years and calendar years, and that complicates trying to work out what is going on with the climate for a given radiocarbon date. The reference archives (Greenland ice cores) that we have for what climate was doing are in calendar years. And the discrepancies can be up to thousands of years apart."

Luckily, Konrad Hughen, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, US, had been working on a record of climate off the Venezuela coast and had taken radiocarbon dates from hundreds of points along the core.

The changes in that core were very similar to those from Greenland and the western Mediterranean, suggesting that the whole North Atlantic system changed in unison when climate flipped back and forth.

So the Venezuelan record is a "Rosetta Stone", with climate and radiocarbon dates written on the same archive. Dr Hughen suggested circumventing the conversion to calendar years altogether and going straight from radiocarbon years to climate.

Professor Tzedakis: "You can take any radiocarbon date from anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere and you can then map it on to the climate record of that particular site. So, for example, if you have a date of 24,000, you go down the core and say 'where do I get 24,000 radiocarbon years in that core' and then you see what the climate was doing - it's as simple as that."

Professor Tzedakis took the last three radiocarbon dates for Neanderthals living in Gorham's Cave and tried mapping them to the core from Venezuela. Much to his surprise, none of the cold events recorded in the climate archive from Venezuela coincided with the dates for Neanderthals living in Gorham's Cave.

Most importantly, perhaps, the evidence for Neanderthals in the cave followed, rather than preceded, the Heinrich Events.

If Neanderthals kept turning up after the big cold events were over, they must have survived them. To Professor Tzedakis, the conclusion was clear: catastrophic climate change could not have been the cause.

But Clive Finlayson says that this interpretation misses the point: Whenever there was evidence of Neanderthals living in Gorham's cave, it meant there were still enough of them around to show up in the archaeological record.

The actual extinction date would have to post-date any evidence of occupation in the cave. So according to Professor Finlayson, trying to match dates for cold spells to late dates of Neanderthal occupation in the cave was a flawed exercise.

A crucial sticking-point is the 5,500-year period between the most recent claimed date for Neanderthals using Gorham's Cave and the first appearance of modern humans on Gibraltar.

Both groups of scientists agree that, at some point during this period, a particularly severe cold spell known as Heinrich Event 2 occurred. But did it cause the Neanderthal extinction, or were they already gone by the time the climate worsened?

Clive Finlayson comments: "The fact that they didn't find harsh conditions say at 24,000 or 28,000 radiocarbon years ago is exactly what we've been arguing. The plant and animal indicators are telling us it's still good. So when do the Neanderthals disappear from Gorham's Cave?

"All we can say is somewhere between 24,000 and 18,500, which is when the modern people come. We're not going to say it's at 19,000 or 20,000, because we don't know. It's somewhere in between."

Chronis Tzedakis is not convinced: "Heinrich 2 is at about 20,000 radiocarbon years ago. The latest date we have at Gorham's is 24,000 radiocarbon years ago and that would suggest that the two events are not really related.

"Now, it is possible that you could have had Neanderthals surviving at Gorham's longer than that. Certainly that date is a last occupation when there are enough Neanderthals around to be detected. But I find it very difficult to see how they could have gone for another 3-4,000 years in the same place and remain undetected.

But if, as Professor Tzedakis believes, catastrophic climate change didn't kill off the last Neanderthals, what did?

Chronis Tzedakis: "Of course, the great debate was, was it anatomically modern humans that did them in. Certainly, there are strong views on each side.

"I think what we have managed to show is, in a sense to simplify the equation, and I think we can be reasonably certain it was not the effects of abrupt, catastrophic climate change and Heinrich Events that were responsible. Now, that does not mean that climate was not involved at all.

"It is entirely possible that you had a combination of factors, perhaps competition from modern humans at a time of limited resources. Because climate is deteriorating at that time - we are moving into the glacial maximum. So resources are scarce but, on the other hand, climate alone is not the most parsimonious explanation. So I think the jury is still out on the factors that may have been involved."

Both sides agree that many factors probably contributed to the long-term decline of the Neanderthals across Europe. But, according to Clive Finlayson, competition with modern humans is an extremely unlikely reason for the demise of the last populations in Iberia.

Firstly, the two human species never overlapped in Gorham's Cave and therefore could not have competed. In addition, the evidence for modern humans in southern Iberia is scant - if not entirely absent - until well after the Neanderthals were gone.

Clive Finlayson: "For me it's very exciting to see this whole thing as a complex mosaic rather than Neanderthals v modern humans. Here come the good guys - the clever guys - and wipe out the others. That has been the traditional argument. For me, that is extremely simplistic."

Some researchers have even been questioning the dogma that Neanderthals were adapted for cold conditions.

During his work on the Stage 3 project, a collaborative effort to understand the effects of climate on flora and fauna during the last Ice Age, Dr John Stewart built a database of animals that existed at the time Neanderthals became extinct.

"What we found was that, contrary to suggestions that Neanderthals were cold-adapted, they seemed to react negatively to the cold, by contracting their range in a south, or south-westerly direction - in the direction of the Iberian Peninsula," the London's Natural History Museum researcher said.

"It was also apparent from the animals they were most likely to be associated with. We compared the animals found on Neanderthal sites with those on modern human sites. Neanderthals tended to have a greater preponderance of woodland or closed-habitat animals. Woodlands, generally speaking, indicate warmer conditions than do open grasslands.

"Animals that are found on open grasslands tended to be found on modern human sites. This suggested that the different humans had different preferences for habitats and that any suggestion of competition might be overstated at the very least and might be wrong as a cause for Neanderthal extinction."

Chris Stringer comments: "I do think the climate was an important part of this story. With much better climatic records, we've been able to appreciate this. The time when modern humans were coming into Europe and Neanderthals were disappearing was a time of great climatic instability.

"The Neanderthals, as much as anything, were unlucky. Not only were they hit by a new population coming into their area, perhaps with some superior adaptations with regards to behaviour and technology, but they were also hit by great climatic instability. This in a sense heightened the competition."

Perhaps the mystique that has built up around the Neanderthal extinction is rather unjustified. Some scientists regard these humans as one of the many mammals which went extinct during the last Ice Age.

"The Neanderthals were our closest relatives. They went extinct and there is a certain amount of fascination about this. I think that's where one draws the line. There are all sorts of interesting problems in palaeontology and palaeoclimatology. This is one of many. It just happens to be more fascinating for the public - so be it," says Chronis Tzedakis.

Ultimately, perhaps, the debate over the extinction of the Neanderthals serves to obscure that, for a time, they were an incredibly successful species.

"They survived for three or four hundred thousand years on the planet, which is a lot longer than us. And they did a very good job of it," says Clive Finlayson.

"As far as I see it, they are intelligent human beings. Different, but when has difference meant superiority or inferiority? That's the take-home message I would have about our understanding of the Neanderthals today. A parallel form of being human.

"It is quite sobering that at one point in the history of the planet, there were different types of us of which one - possibly by chance - survived. In other words, we might be the Neanderthals discussing this today."


Were Neanderthals Victims of Their Own Success?

A popular explanation for the disappearance of Neanderthals is that modern humans were superior, evolutionarily speaking. Our ancestors were smarter and more technologically advanced. When they left Africa and populated the rest of the world, the Neanderthals didn’t stand a chance.

But what if Neanderthals went extinct in part because they were too successful? New research published in the journal Human Ecology demonstrates how that’s possible. By adapting their behavior to the challenges of climate change and expanding their ranges, Neanderthals may have set up the circumstances that led to their demise.

Neanderthals emerged in Europe and West Asia by 200,000 years ago. Their close cousins, Homo sapiens, arrived in that territory sometime between 50,000 and 40,000 years ago. Within a few tens of thousands of years, Neanderthals were gone. The timing of our arrival in Eurasia and the Neanderthal extinction has led paleoanthropologists to conclude the two events are related.

Archaeologist Michael Barton of Arizona State University and his colleagues developed a new approach to studying the Neanderthal extinction, by looking at changes in land-use patterns in both Neanderthals and modern humans. They first examined 167 archaeological assemblages from across western Eurasia, from Spain to Jordan, and as far north as Romania. All of these sites date to the Late Pleistocene, 128,000 to 11,500 years ago. The team identified which species lived at which sites based on the type of artifacts Neanderthals and humans made distinct types of stone tools.

At the beginning of the Late Pleistocene, the team discovered, both Neanderthals and modern humans tended to be nomadic, moving their camps from site to site to utilize different resources in different places. As climate became more unstable and unpredictable over time, it was harder to find resources, so both species changed their behavior: They began to travel over a larger geographic area. But instead of moving to new sites more frequently and lugging all of their stuff across greater distances, they maintained more permanent base camps and took longer, more targeted hunting and foraging trips, returning home with their bounty.

These different hunting-and-gathering strategies left their mark in the archaeological record. When Neanderthals or humans moved their camps more frequently, they tended to repair and use the same tools over and over again because it was easier to carry around fewer tools and recycle them than to bring along raw tool-making materials everywhere they went. Therefore, in archaeological sites that record nomadic behavior, archaeologists find more stone tools that have been reworked and fewer stone tools overall compared to sites that were used as more permanent base camps, where researchers find an abundance of stone tools that show little sign of being reused.

Finding that this change in behavior correlates with climate change is fascinating in its own right, but there’s another implication that relates to the question of the Neanderthal extinction. Because both humans and Neanderthals started to stray farther and farther from home to find food, they had more opportunities to come into contact with each other—more chances for mating.

In other types of animals, the researchers note, species sometimes go extinct due to breeding with closely related species, or hybridization. If one species has a larger population than the other, the less numerous species will sort of blend into the larger species. As more and more interbreeding occurs, the smaller population will eventually disappear. This may be what happened to Neanderthals, according to two population models that Barton and his colleagues developed. Under these scenarios, humans didn’t have to be better adapted to the environment (physically or culturally) than Neanderthals to win out—they just had to be more numerous. “In one sense,” the researchers write in their report, “we could say that their extinction was the result of Late Pleistocene globalization.”

Of course, it is possible that humans were more numerous and had evolutionary advantages over Neanderthals. That’s a question that requires more research and more sophisticated models. But it’s interesting to think that the Neanderthals may have sealed their fate by adapting their ranging behaviors to the changing climates of the Pleistocene. In that sense, they may have been too successful for their own good.


When did Neanderthals go extinct?

A team of researchers from Belgium, England, and Germany collaborated across disciplines and arrived at a surprising hypothesis: Previous scientists had gotten the timeline for Neanderthal extinction wrong.

The scientists found that Neanderthals had likely disappeared from northwestern Europe roughly 40,000 to 44,000 years ago — earlier than previously thought.

Previous radiocarbon dating analysis of Neanderthal remains found in what’s known as the Spy Cave in Belgium determined ages as recently as 24,000 years ago. Meanwhile, it’s more commonly accepted Neanderthals disappeared some time between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago.

This study’s team conducted a new analysis on the Spy Cave Neanderthals, as well as other Neanderthal remains found in Belgium, finding a new disappearance time frame.

Necessary background — Extinction, when it comes to Neanderthals, is complicated. While no Neanderthals live today, some scientists don’t view their disappearance as “true extinction” because they were assimilated into the modern human gene pool.

Meanwhile, previous research indicates Neanderthal’s use of stone tools likely ended sometime between 39,000 to 41,000 years ago — suggesting an end of life.

It’s also very likely Neanderthal disappearance happened in waves. Some research suggests there were late-surviving or “transitional” Neanderthals.

This team wanted to better assess the timeline of Neanderthals’ disappearance from Europe using fossils found in caves in Belgium. To date, archaeologists have discovered Neanderthal remains in nine caves in Belgium.

One particular site, the Spy Cave, has intrigued researchers for the sheer number of Neanderthal remains that it contains. Original excavations conducted in the late 1800s discovered 89 hominin bone fragments of two different Neanderthal individuals, while subsequent investigations have discovered 24 more Neanderthal fossils.

How they did it — The researchers developed a more robust method for dating Neanderthal specimens using “compound-specific radiocarbon analysis.”

This method isolates a single amino acid — amino acid hydroxyproline (HYP) — from bone collagen. It’s more robust compared to other radiocarbon dating methods because the amino acid is found only in the collagen of mammals.

Using this compound-specific technique, researchers retested four Neanderthal specimens in the Spy Cave, coming up with new dates for each one. They also used this method on Neanderthals found in Engis and Fonds-de-Forêt.

Based on these dates, the scientists constructed a statistical model to determine the likelihood of the latest Neanderthal occupation of Belgium.

Digging into the details — The researchers found that the Neanderthal specimens were older than previously thought — some up to 10,000 years older.

Their statistical model stated there was a very strong probability, 95 percent, that Neanderthals became extinct in northwestern Europe roughly 40,600 to 44,200 years ago.

The researchers suggest the fossil preservation techniques used in the 1800s, which involved applying glue made from animal collagen, could have made it more difficult for subsequent scientists to accurately date these Neanderthal specimens — and lead to inaccurate dates.

But using their new method, the scientists in this study were effectively able to “decontaminate” the fossils, allowing for accurate analysis.

Why it matters — Getting the date of these Neanderthal fossils precisely right is crucial to understanding the extinction of Neanderthals, as well as their relationship to the first modern humans.

“Dating is crucial in archaeology,” co-author Tom Higham, a University of Oxford professor and director of the PalaeoChron research project, explained in a statement.

“Without a reliable framework of chronology we can’t really be confident in understanding the relationships between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens.”

What’s next — This study team devised a robust method for dating the fossils of ancient peoples, such as the Neanderthals.

But if we truly want to understand the Neanderthals, other new, robust methods are needed too. This team suggests retesting the dates of other Neanderthal specimens using their compound-specific approach.

However, the ultimate question remains unanswered: What caused Neanderthals to disappear from the face of the Earth?

Researchers mention a few possible reasons — climate change, inbreeding, and competition from ancient hominins — but state that “these are beyond the scope of this article.”

Perhaps these new dating methods will help future paleontologists resolve that question, once and for all.


10. They May Have Disappeared Due to Climate Change

The cause of the Neanderthals' extinction is unknown, but two studies present interesting hypotheses.

In one 2017 study, researchers suggest that the extinction was a matter of population dynamics and timing. Neanderthals shared space with H. sapiens for a while, but eventually, the competitive exclusion principle — the ecological rule that two species cannot occupy the same niche at one time — began to factor in. Thus, H. sapiens naturally replaced the Neanderthals.

But in another study published in 2018, researchers report evidence that could link the extinction of Neanderthals with climate change. The authors of the study examined caves to create detailed records of ancient climate change in continental Europe. This revealed a series of prolonged, extremely cold, and extremely dry conditions that coincided with periods during which Neanderthal tools were absent. While this does not prove causation, it is compelling and opens the door to new theories.


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