New study suggests Neanderthals never went extinct
Scientific debate regarding the demise of the Neanderthals has been ongoing for decades with many experts proposing factors such as climate change, competition for resources, of lack of intelligence for possible causes behind the extinction of the Neanderthals around 30,000 – 40,000 years ago. But now new research published in the journal PLOS ONE suggests that Neanderthals didn’t go extinct at all. Rather they vanished gradually over time by interbreeding and assimilation with early humans.
Dr Paola Villa, from the University of Colorado Museum, and Professor Wil Roebroeks, from Leiden University, wrote in the online journal Public Library of Science ONE argue that the differences between the two human sub-species are not enough on their own to account for the extinction of the Neanderthals – research has found that the genomes of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals are 99.84 percent genetically identical , and have fewer than 100 proteins that differ in their amino acid sequence.
Experts have theorised that Neanderthals died out because they were mentally, technologically and culturally inferior to the Homo sapiens and unable to compete for limited resources. But Dr Villa and Professor Roebroeks have said in their report, “we conclude that all the archaeology-based explanations for the demise of the Neanderthals… are flawed”.
The scientists conducted an analysis on archaeological evidence dating back 200,000 years and found that Neanderthals made effective tools and weapons, wore ornaments such as eagle claws, used ochre, ate plants and fish as well as big game, used fire to produce pitch from tree bark, and created organised living spaces in their caves. In many cases this was happening before the arrival of modern humans, so the behaviours could not have been copied from them. This demonstrates that the Neanderthals were not inferior to early humans in what they could achieve.
Further evidence comes from the fossil record. A number of recent studies have presented evidence for inbreeding between Neanderthals and humans. Some human-like characteristics have been found in late Neanderthal fossils, and conversely, Neanderthal features have been seen in early specimens of modern humans in Europe. In addition, Neanderthal genes have been found in modern human DNA and has been found to make up between 1% and 4% of the DNA of people outside Africa.
“Genetic studies now suggest that the debate on the demise of the Neanderthals needs to be reframed in terms of some degree of interbreeding,” wrote the study authors, who maintain that Neanderthals and early modern humans are most likely to have interbred in Europe and the Middle East around 50,000 years ago.
The study authors concluded that “Neanderthals did not go extinct, even though their distinctive morphology did disappear.” Instead the Neanderthals were assimilated within the expanding human population.