Some 30,000 years ago, the Neanderthal’s vanished from the earth. The cause of their extinction has long been a source of debate. Now, a team of academics believes that they have the answer. So, what’s the story? What killed off the Neanderthal’s?
Who were the Neanderthals?
The Neanderthal was a man-like species that once lived in Europe and parts of Asia. They are believed to have originated some 350,000-600,000 years ago. Modern scientists are locked in a debate about whether to categorize them as a subspecies (or race) of humans or a separate human species altogether. Regardless, compared to anatomically modern humans, Neanderthal’s were probably more robust, stronger, and exhibited a higher degree of facial sloping.
What happened to the Neanderthals?
Scientists have proposed numerous theories to account for their unexplained extinction. As you will see below, most of these theories are based around a sudden influx of competitors…namely modern man.
- Genocide: Anatomically modern humans are believed to have evolved from an archaic human species some 200,000 years ago. As these early humans drifted out of Africa, they might have engaged the indigenous Neanderthal’s in war and killed them off.
- Disease: Similar to the above except with pathogens as the agent of death. Humans might have accidentally infected Neanderthal populations with one or more diseases which proceeded to wipe them out.
- Lack of Competitive Advantage: Humans may have held some kind of competitive advantage that enabled them to outlive the Neanderthal’s. Possibilities include technology or anatomical differences that made it more difficult for the Neanderthal’s to run and caused them to burn far more energy while doing so.
- Interbreeding: Neanderthal’s might have bred with early humans, causing them to be completely absorbed into the Cro-Magnon population. This theory is backed to some degree by genetic studies and skeletal analysis.
- Lack of Specialty: Neanderthal men and women may have both focused on hunting big game. With no one gathering plants or performing other home-based activities, they wouldn’t have been able to make full use of their environment.
- Climate Change: The arrival of an Ice Age reduced plant growth in Europe. The Neanderthal’s might have been unable to adapt to the corresponding decline in plant-eating animals.
A New Theory?
A few days ago, Sir Paul Mellars, Professor Emeritus of Prehistory and Human Evolution at Cambridge University, and his student Jennifer French announced new findings that may help explain why the European-based Neanderthal’s went extinct. Their research at Périgord, France shows that a great mass of African-based humans swarmed western Europe about 40,000 years ago. Outnumbered ten to one, the Neanderthal’s were forced to compete heavily for resources against a human population that was, in all likelihood, technologically superior.
“Faced with this kind of competition, the Neanderthals seem to have retreated initially into more marginal and less attractive regions of the continent and eventually, within a space of at most a hundred thousand years, for their populations to have declined to extinction – perhaps accelerated further by sudden climatic deterioration across the continent around 40,000 years ago.” ~ Professor Sir Paul Mellars
In addition, Professor Mellars believes that interbreeding, a theory favored by many scientists, had less impact than is generally accepted.
“There’s some evidence that Neanderthals and modern humans interbred, but that most likely happened 100,000 years ago, probably in the Near East. Modern humans swept into Europe much later – about 40,000 years ago – and there’s no evidence for interbreeding then.” ~ Professor Sir Paul Mellars
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
I have no doubt that other scientists and archaeologists will soon step forward, providing fresh challenges to Professor Mellars’ theory. Still, it seems probable that increased competition helped kill off the Neanderthal’s. But are they really extinct? Modern research shows that the average person living outside of Africa carries Neanderthal genetic material in the range of one to four percent. Thus, while the Neanderthal’s are no longer around, their legacy continues to live on inside many of us, a small but enduring reminder of the long and twisting path of modern man.