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When humans spread out of Africa we bumped into the Neanderthals, who were already occupying many parts of the world. The genetic legacy of this encounter lives on in many of us, but it turns out it almost didn’t happen. Climate change 50,000 years prior nearly killed off the Neanderthals.
When I think of Neanderthals, climate, and extinction, an ice age leaps to mind. However, it was actually an improving climate that nearly spelt doom for the Neanderthals1.
This revelation comes from the site of Baume Moula-Guercy, France. There, archaeologists Defleur and Desclaux were excavating a Neanderthal layer from the warm Eemian period that started 128,000 years ago1.
Contrary to what you’d expect for a nice warm period, all signs they found pointed to Neanderthals struggling at this time. And, as they expanded out their study, they found similar evidence from all over Europe1.
Baume chicka wow wow
Baume Moula-Guercy, which Defleur and Desclaux quickly abbreviate to BMG because they’re lazy, is located in South East France. Since it was discovered in the late 90s, excavations at BMG have revealed 19 archaeological layers1.
The latest discovery, which Defleur and Desclaux are reporting on here, is layer XV. It’s from the Eemian period, a nice and warm phase from 128-114 ka sandwiched between two less nice glacial periods1.
Accordingly, Defleur and Desclaux document a change in the local flora and fauna during this period. Forests sprung up, populated by deer, rhinos, elephants, and bears. Crucially, several reptiles found on the Mediterranean coast, and no longer at BMG, joined in on the fun. Their presence shows that the area was more like the French Riviera than it is today1.
Neanderthals killed off each other
Despite now approximating a popular holiday destination, BMG seems to have been anything but relaxing for the Eemian Neanderthals.
It seems food was hard for them to get. Relatively few faunal remains were found in layer 15, so to compensate they completely consumed the kills they did get. They even sucked the marrow out of toe-bones just to get that little bit of extra food. As you might expect in this situation, many of the Neanderthals show signs of malnutrition. Tooth deformities indicate their growth was interrupted by a lack of food or disease (or both)1.
So the BMG Neanderthals seem to have turned to an easier source of food: each other. Half of all Neanderthal bones show signs they were butchered. If you add it all up, Neanderthals would’ve made up a significant part of the Neanderthal diet at BMG1.
One silver lining is that none of those Neanderthals seemed to have died violently. There’s a strong chance this was opportunistic cannibalism, consuming people who died of natural causes1.
Neanderthals nearly killed off across Europe
So why was this nice warm period tough for Neanderthals? Well, paradoxically, warm forests aren’t that great for hunters. Prey in forests is typically smaller, faster moving, and harder to find than a mammoth out on the grasslands. Even today, modern hunter-gatherers find forests and jungles a tricky place to live1.
As such, BMG likely wasn’t a one-off. Any Eemian Neanderthals would have been suffering through this climate change. Accordingly, as Defleur and Desclaux expanded their study they found something interesting about the Eemian Neanderthal sites1.
Namely, there were much fewer than during earlier periods.
This lack of sites means there’s also a lack of data. As such, we can’t say for sure just how widespread malnutrition or cannibalism was during this period. However, the mere fact that sites are disappearing tells us things weren’t going well for the Neanderthals. Defleur and Desclaux speculate there may have been a massive population crash during this period, painting this grim picture1:
All of which is very reassuring as we warm up the environment ourselves, pushing us back towards that delightful Eemian ecosystem.
- Defleur, A.R. and Desclaux, E., 2019. Impact of the last interglacial climate change on ecosystems and Neanderthals behavior at Baume Moula-Guercy, Ardèche, France. Journal of Archaeological Science, 104, pp.114-124.