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The extinction of Neanderthals remains one of the big mysteries in human evolution. Given we were so closely related, how come we survived but they didn’t? Well, it turns out they might already have been put on the road to extinction by climate change before our species got involved1.
This revelation comes from research by Melchionna et al., published in the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology1. Which is maybe the biggest mouthful of a journal name I’ve ever seen.
The extinction of Neanderthals happened around 40,000 years ago. This was a period of climate change and also when Homo sapiens arrived in Europe. As such, there has been debate over which factor led to their disappearance. Or maybe it was a bit of both, with climate change bringing Neanderthals and modern humans into conflict over resources.
However, there’s been relatively little research on whether or not Neanderthals and Homo sapiens would have even been after the same territory. This is what Melchionna et al. were interested in. They used the distribution of Neanderthal and modern human sites in Europe to plot the sort of territory they liked. With this knowledge, they could chart whether they’d be after the same areas1.
Finding the perfect spot for the extinction of Neanderthals
Sure enough, both species would have been after a similar part of Europe. Both would also have lost territory during the climate change 40,000 years ago; potentially bringing them into conflict1.
However, Melchionna et al. also made a surprising discovery. Within the territory both species were after, Neanderthals’ preferred environment was broken up into small, relatively isolated refuges. This isolation is pretty not good for mobile hunter-gatherers, who rely on contact with others to share resources and knowledge; mitigating risk.
Plus, you know, there’s the whole “avoiding inbreeding” thing.
If true, this would mean Neanderthals were already on the back foot when modern humans arrived. Given they were then competing for this territory, the Neanderthals fate was sealed1.
Although the work of Melchionna et al. consists of computer modelling, there is good reason to think they might be onto something. Other lines of evidence do indicate Neanderthal populations were isolated (even though their overall population may have been large). This is perhaps most strongly attested to by numerous examples of inbreeding within the species.
It seems that climate change set the Neanderthals up for failure. I feel like there’s a moral in this story somewhere.
- Melchionna, M., Di Febbraro, M., Carotenuto, F., Rook, L., Mondanaro, A., Castiglione, S., Serio, C., Vero, V.A., Tesone, G., Piccolo, M. and Diniz-Filho, J.A.F., 2018. Fragmentation of Neanderthals’ pre-extinction distribution by climate change. Palaeogeography, palaeoclimatology, palaeoecology, 496, pp.146-154.
- Cover image By Edubucher – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16925246