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What Happened To The Neanderthals?

Scientists have found evidence that by the time modern humans arrived in Europe, Neanderthals had already experienced an extinction scare.

neanderthal heads in a museum

Photo: melfoody (Flickr)

About 40,000 years ago, Neanderthals had already experienced an extinction scare.

Dear A Moment of Science,

I know you have dealt with this topic before, but is there any new research about what happened to the Neanderthals?

Finding Evidence

To provide a little context, Neanderthals were a human species that lived throughout Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East up until about 35,000 years ago, when they went extinct. One theory suggests that when modern humans broke out of Africa they eventually out competed Neanderthals for resources and drove them to extinction.

But recently, scientists have found evidence for a variation on that hypothesis that by the time modern humans arrived in Europe about 40,000 years ago, Neanderthals had already experienced an extinction scare.

50,000 Years Ago

New analysis of Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA shows around 50,000 years ago the European Neanderthal population had shrunk to a relatively small number of individuals numbering only around 10,000.

Scientists think that Neanderthals probably recovered fairly well by the time modern humans invaded their territory, but then only lasted for another 10,000 or so years before petering out.

Dramatic Climate Change

So, at some point around 50,000 years ago, something probably happened to cause lots of Neanderthals to disappear, something like dramatic climate change, such as brief periods of freezing temperatures known to have occurred around when scientists suspect Neanderthal populations began to shrink.

All of this suggests that although Neanderthals were adapted to cold weather, they may have been more vulnerable to climate change than we thought. So what finally wiped them out may have been a combination of modern human competition and changes in climate.

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