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Monday, July 20, 2009

Neandertal Extinction: 15,000 Years, and There Goes the Neighborhood

Katie Wong writes:

Some 28,000 years ago in what is now the British territory of Gibraltar, a group of Neandertals eked out a living along the rocky Mediterranean coast. They were quite possibly the last of their kind. Elsewhere in Europe and western Asia, Neandertals had disappeared thousands of years earlier, after having ruled for more than 200,000 years. The Iberian Peninsula, with its comparatively mild climate and rich array of animals and plants, seems to have been the final stronghold. Soon, however, the Gibraltar population, too, would die out, leaving behind only a smattering of their stone tools and the charred remnants of their campfires.

Ever since the discovery of the first Neandertal fossil in 1856, scientists have debated the place of these bygone humans on the family tree and what became of them. For decades two competing theories have dominated the discourse. One holds that Neandertals were an archaic variant of our own species, Homo sapiens, that evolved into or was assimilated by the anatomically modern European population. The other posits that the Neandertals were a separate species, H. neanderthalensis, that modern humans swiftly extirpated on entering the archaic hominid's territory.

Over the past decade, however, two key findings have shifted the fulcrum of the debate away from the question of whether Neandertals and moderns made love or war. One is that analyses of Neandertal DNA have yet to yield the signs of interbreeding with modern humans that many researchers expected to see if the two groups mingled significantly. The other is that improvements in dating methods show that rather than disappearing immediately after the moderns invaded Europe, starting a little more than 40,000 years ago, the Neandertals survived for nearly 15,000 years after moderns moved in—hardly the rapid replacement adherents to the blitzkrieg theory envisioned.

These revelations have prompted a number of researchers to look more carefully at other ­factors that might have led to Neandertal extinction. What they are finding suggests that the answer involves a complicated interplay of stresses.

link: The Mysterious Downfall of the Neandertals: Scientific American


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