Why did the Neanderthals die out?

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A major conference in London this week will reveal the results of five years' research on why Homo sapiens emerged triumphant in the survival battle of the humans


The puzzle is one of the greatest surrounding our species. On a planet that bristled with different types of human being, including Neanderthalsand the Hobbit-like folk of Flores, only one is left today: Homo sapiens.

Our current solo status on Earth is therefore an evolutionary oddity – though it is not clear when our species became Earth's only masters, nor is it clear why we survived when all other versions of humanity died out. Did we kill off our competitors, or were the others just poorly adapted and unable to react to the extreme climatic fluctuations that then beset the planet?

These key issues are to be tackled this week at a major conference at the British Museum, in London, called When Europe was covered by ice and ash. At the meeting scientists will reveal results from a five-year research programme using modern dating techniques to answer these puzzles.

In particular, researchers have focused on the Neanderthals, a species very close in physique and brain size to modern humans. They once dominated Europe, but disappeared after modern humans emerged from our African homeland around 60,000 years ago. The question is: why?

"A major problem in understanding what happened when modern humans appeared in Europe has concerned the dates for our arrival," said Professor Chris Stringer, of the Natural History Museum, London. "It was once thought we appeared in Europe around 35,000 years ago and that we coexisted with Neanderthals for thousands of years after that. They may have hung on in pockets – including caves in Gibraltar – until 28,000 years ago, it was believed."

Written By: Robin McKie
continue to source article at guardian.co.uk

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  1. I’ll place my bet on us killing them off. Many of us have difficulty with accepting differences – homosexuality, handicaps, etc. To imagine us killing off a group isn’t too much of a stretch.

    • In reply to #1 by QuestioningKat:

      I’ll place my bet on us killing them off. Many of us have difficulty with accepting differences – homosexuality, handicaps, etc. To imagine us killing off a group isn’t too much of a stretch.

      I don’t understand why people attach value judgements to these things. You talk as if the early humans practiced some sort of structured genocide against the Neanderthals, like they were Nazis or something. If humans did cause the Neanderthals to go extinct it was just the standard competition among organisms for territory and scarce resources, no different than what all other organisms do all the time.

  2. Our current solo status on Earth is therefore an evolutionary oddity – though it is not clear when our species became Earth’s only masters

    I didn’t understand this. I wasn’t aware that there was anything about the extinction of the Neanderthals that would qualify it as an “evolutionary oddity”. To me it always seemed like just a natural event, species go extinct all the time I thought. The only thing interesting about it is that they were a species so close to humans so it would help to understand why they went extinct from that standpoint (it will tell us a lot about the evolutionary pressures on early humans for example) but not that there is anything particularly interesting from an evolutionary standpoint going on. Am I wrong?

    • In reply to #2 by Red Dog:

      Our current solo status on Earth is therefore an evolutionary oddity – though it is not clear when our species became Earth’s only masters

      I didn’t understand this. I wasn’t aware that there was anything about the extinction of the Neanderthals that would qualify it as an “evolutionary oddity”.

      I thought the oddity was there being no other homo relatives species alive now. I think it’s believed that for most of the rest of our existence there have been more than one homo species living at the same time.

      Michael

  3. I recall reading two items in different Science blogs about Neanderthals that I found very interesting. One stated that a number of scientists are beginning to think that, rather than Neanderthals becoming extinct that they submerged into humans through interbreeding since humans and Neanderthals co-existed for such a very long time (human fossils have been found in Europe as long as 42,000 years ago; Neanderthal became extinct 30,000 years ago, so we co-existed for at least 12,000 years). The 2nd item was that seeing as our contact was so very recent that Neanderthals may well be represented in our folk lore and fairy tales as the trolls, gnomes, goblins, and other human-like creatures we are so familiar with.

  4. The evidence is obvious and irrefutable! Neanderthals showed a predilection for governing everything and quickly realized that their very survival was dependent on mixing with and ultimately dominating Homo Sapiens, “By any means necessary” which is exactly what they did! Hence, they developed into the modern day so-called “Democratic Party” and they continue to triumph over the Eloi-based Republicans because they have perfected the art of displaying morals when they have none, compassion, when they have no concept of the meaning of the word and wisdom by simply pronouncing that their leader is always the “smartest man in the room” despite the fact that he otherwise appears to be a common dunce.

    It was not a difficult triumph!

  5. Wasn’t there a massive earthquake around 65,000 years ago? Wouldn’t there be a nuclear winter effect for several years, killing off all the crops? It would make sense that the hunter gatherers would be fine since they’re foraging and don’t have to support a larger group with agriculture. Plus, they’re in more northern latitudes and may have been unaffected by the ash clouds blocking out the sun. Puzzling.

  6. If one postulates that the overlapping area could support 100000 homo, starting with 99900 neaderthals invaded by 100 modern humans, with humans enjoying a population increase of just 2% each generation at the expense of neanderthals (ie two of the 50 couples each have one surviving-to-breed child above the average of two that a stable population would have) it takes a comfortable 350 generations to anihilate the neanderthals, and even with a million neanderthals it only takes until generation 470 – within the overlapping 12000 years assuming 25-year generation times. That is without any migration (although it does assume that there is direct competition for resources that remain unchanging throughout the period).

    This is a complete back-of-the-envelope estimate but fecundity of invading populations of humans historically has been vastly greater than this when competing with other modern humans so this bit seems not unreasonable(see this wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographic_history_of_the_United_States). The other figures may have been plucked from where the sun doesn’t shine but it all goes to my main point, there doesn’t need to be any shooting war or massive orgy to explain the demise of the neanderthals – a fairly unnoticable increase year to year or season to season in the range or other exploitation of resources relative to neanderthals could easily result in their demise.

  7. The Neanderthals died out as a unique species because we were more adaptable. We were better at adapting to climate change and had a more diverse diet than they did. I seem to remember from an Anthropology course I took a few years ago stating that research at various archaeological sites along the coast in Europe indicate that Neanderthals did not eat shell fish. As competition increased for resources we were able to turn to other sources of food that the Neanderthals did not or would not consider.

  8. It makes sense:

    “research at various archaeological sites along the coast in Europe indicate that Neanderthals did not eat shell fish”

    (I guess I viewed a documentary that focused on this, including that they had a meat diet).

    As far as Cro-Magnons showed up in the historical scenario, a sudden cultural explosion with fast cultural innovation occured, as far as this maybe thought to be a defining key characteristic of humans. The Neanderthal Musteriense industry remained the same for a long period of time, with few innovations (but it seems they had music, adorns and art and cared for their deads), a paralel humanity indeed. (I think some other “species” may have had such a diverse evolutionary variety too with several extinctions ?)

  9. Research suggests that Sapien entered Europe by 45,000 yrs but by 40,000 yrs Neanderthals were largely extinct, Sparse populations of Neanderthals were genetically absorbed by Sapiens and the small traces of their DNA in some non African people shows that the 5000 years of contact is a long time to co-exist and they certainly got intimate, but I’m not convinced Sapiens routinely murdered them, disease is also a culprit and we could have both infected each other, but Sapiens immunity was perhaps superior to theirs ? Its likely that many factors contributed to their demise, mostly caused by Sapien indirectly like the depletion of shared resources.

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