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Neanderthals faced extinction before humans appeared, but recovered

Neanderthals faced extinction before humans appeared, but recovered


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Anew study of mitochondrial DNA sequences published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution has found that Neanderthals came close to extinction during the last Ice Age in Western Europe, possible before they came into contact with Homo sapiens, but then managed to recover from the population crisis.

Until now, it was widely believed that Europe had been populated by a relatively stable Neanderthal population for hundreds of thousands of years, but this research shows that the Neanderthals had a tougher time that previously thought. Nevertheless, they showed their resilience by fighting their way back from near extinction, allowing them to come into contact with Homo sapiens and interbreed with them. Recent research showed that nearly 20% of Neanderthal genes are represented in Homo sapiens today .

The fact that Neanderthals in Western Europe were nearly extinct, but then recovered long before they came into contact with modern humans came as a complete surprise to us," said study co-author Love Dalén, associate professor at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm. "This indicates that the Neanderthals may have been more sensitive to the dramatic climate changes that took place in the last Ice Age than was previously thought.

The international team of researchers, led by Anders Götherström at Uppsala University and Love Dalén at the Swedish Museum of Natural History, analysed the amount of genetic variation in the DNA from 13 Neanderthals and from there, the scientists pieced together the puzzle of a demographic history. When they started looking at the DNA, a clear pattern emerged. Neanderthal individuals from Western Europe that were older than 50,000 years and individuals from sites in western Asia and the Middle East showed a high degree of genetic variation, which is what is expected from a species that has been abundant in an area for a long period of time. However, Neanderthal individuals from Western Europe that were younger than 50,000 years show an extremely reduced amount of genetic variation, less even than the present-day population of remote Iceland.

The demographic crisis coincides with a period of extreme cold in Western Europe. Co-author Rolf Quam of the University of Binghamtod suggests that the findings call for a major rethinking of the idea of cold adaptation in Neanderthals. "At the very least, this tells us that without the aid of material culture or technology, there is a limit to our biological adaptation," said Quam.

It is believed that extinction was avoided when Neanderthals from surrounding areas repopulated the region. The geographic origin of this source population is not clear, but it may be possible to pinpoint it further with additional study.

Quam concluded by saying that this study is the latest example of how studies of ancient DNA are “providing new insights into an important and previously unknown part of Neanderthal history… It’s exciting to think about what will turn up next.”


    Answering Scientific Questions on Neanderthal-Human Interbreeding, Part 1

    One of my favorite rock bands of all time is Lynyrd Skynyrd. (That’s right…Skynyrd, baby!) I know their musical catalog forward and backwards. I don’t know if it is a good thing or not, but I am conversant with the history of most of the songs recorded by the band’s original lineup.

    “Don’t Ask Me No Questions” was the first single released from their second studio album, Second Helping. The album also included “Sweet Home Alabama.” When juxtaposed with the success of “Sweet Home Alabama,” it’s ironic that “Don’t Ask Me No Questions” never even broke the charts.

    An admonition to family and friends not to pry into their personal affairs, this song describes the exhaustion the band members felt after spending months on tour. All they want is peace and respite when they return home. Instead, they find themselves continuously confronted by unrelenting and inappropriate questions about the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.

    As a Christian apologist, people ask me questions all the time. Yet, rarely do I find the questions annoying and inappropriate. I am happy to do my best to answer most of the questions asked of me—even the snarky ones posed by internet trolls. As of late, one topic that comes up often is interbreeding between modern humans and Neanderthals:

    • Is it true that modern humans and Neanderthals interbred?
    • If interbreeding took place, what does that mean for the credibility of the biblical account of human origins?
    • Did the children resulting from these interbreeding events have a soul? Did they bear the image of God?

    Recently, an international team of investigators looking to catalog Neanderthal genetic contributions, surveyed a large sampling of Icelander genomes. This work generated new and unexpected insights about interbreeding between hominins and modern humans. 1

    It came as little surprise to me when the headlines announcing this discovery triggered another round of questions about interbreeding between modern humans and Neanderthals. I will address the first two questions above in this article and the third one in a future post.

    RTB’s Human Origins Model in 2005

    To tell the truth, for a number of years I resisted the idea that modern humans interbred with Neanderthals and Denisovans. When Hugh Ross and I published the first edition of our book, Who Was Adam? (2005), there was no real evidence that modern humans and Neanderthals interbred. We took this absence of evidence as support for the RTB human origins model.

    According to our model, Neanderthals have no evolutionary connection to modern humans. The RTB model posits that the hominins, such as Neanderthals and Denisovans, were creatures made by God that existed for a time and went extinct. These creatures had intelligence and emotional capacity (like most mammals), which enabled them to establish a culture. However, unlike modern humans, these creatures lacked the image of God. Accordingly, they were cognitively inferior to modern humans. In this sense, the RTB h uman o rigins m odel regards the hominins in the same vein as the great apes: intelligent, fascinating creatures in their own right that share some biological and behavioral attributes with modern humans (reflecting common design). Yet, no one would confuse a great ape and a modern human because of key biological distinctions and, more importantly, because of profound cognitive and behavioral differences.

    When we initially proposed our m odel , we predicted that the biological differences between modern humans and Neanderthals would have made interbreeding unlikely. And if they did interbreed, then these differences would have prohibited the production of viable, fertile offspring.

    Did Humans and Neanderthals Interbreed?

    In 2010, researchers produced a rough draft sequence of the Neanderthal genome and compared it to modern human genomes. They discovered a closer statistical association of the Neanderthal genome with those from European and Asian people groups than with genomes from African people groups. 2 The researchers maintained that this effect could be readily explained if a limited number of interbreeding events took place between humans and Neanderthals in the eastern portion of the Middle East, roughly 45,000 to 80,000 years ago, just as humans began to migrate around the world. This would explain why non-African populations display what appears to be a 1 to 4 percent genetic contribution from Neanderthals while African people groups have no contribution whatsoever.

    At that time, I wasn’t entirely convinced that modern humans and Neanderthals interbred because there were other ways to explain the statistical association. Additionally, studies of Neanderthal genomes indicate that these hominins lived in small insular groups. At that time, I argued that the low population densities of Neanderthals would have greatly reduced the likelihood of encounters with modern humans migrating in small populations. It seemed to me that it was unlikely that interbreeding occurred.

    Other studies demonstrated that Neanderthals most likely were extinct before modern humans made their way into Europe. Once again, I argued that the earlier extinction of Neanderthals makes it impossible for them to have interbred with humans in Europe. Extinction also raises questions about whether the two species interbred at all.

    The Case for Interbreeding

    Despite these concerns, in the last few years I have become largely convinced that modern humans and Neanderthals interbred. Studies such as the one cataloging the Neanderthal contribution to the genomes of Icelanders leave me little choice in the matter.

    Thanks to the deCODE project, the genome sequences for nearly half the Icelandic population have been determined. An international team of collaborators made use of this data set, analyzing over 27,500 Icelander genomes for Neanderthal contribution using a newly developed algorithm. They detected over 14.4 million fragments of Neanderthal DNA in their data set. Of these, 112,709 were unique sequences that collectively constituted 48 percent of the Neanderthal genome.

    This finding has important implications. Even though individual Icelanders have about a 1 to 4 percent Neanderthal contribution to their genomes, the precise contribution differs from person to person. And when these individual contributions are combined it yields Neanderthal DNA sequences that cover nearly 50 percent of the Neanderthal genome. This finding aligns with previous studies which demonstrate that, collectively, across the human population Neanderthal sequences are distributed throughout 20 percent of the human genome. And 40 percent of the Neanderthal genome can be reconstructed from Neanderthal sequences found in a sampling of Eurasian genomes. 3

    Adding to this evidence for interbreeding are studies that characterized ancient DNA recovered from several modern human fossil remains unearthed in Europe, dating between about 35,000 and 45,000 years in age. The genomes of these ancient modern humans contain much longer stretches of Neanderthal DNA than what’s found in contemporary modern humans, which is exactly what would be expected if modern humans interbred with these hominins. 4

    As I see it, interbreeding is the only way to make sense of these results.

    Are Humans and Neanderthals the Same Species?

    Because the biological species concept (BSC) defines a species as an interbreeding population, some people argue that modern humans and Neanderthals must belong to the same species. This perspective is common among young-earth creationists who see Neanderthals as a subset of humanity.

    This argument fails to take into account the limitations of the BSC, one being the phenomenon of hybridization. Mammals that belong to separate species have been known to interbreed and produce viable—even fertile—offspring called hybrids. For example, lions and tigers in captivity have interbred successfully—yet both parent animals remain considered separate species. I would argue that the concept of hybridization applies to the interbreeding that took place between modern humans and Neanderthals.

    Even though it appears that modern humans and Neanderthals interbred, other lines of evidence indicate that these two hominins were distinct species. Significant anatomical differences exist between the two. The most profound difference is skull anatomy and, consequently, brain structure.

    Anatomical Differences between Human and Neanderthal Skulls. Image credit: Wikipedia.

    Additionally, Neanderthals possessed a hyper-polar body design, consisting of a stout, barrel-shaped body with shortened limbs to help with heat retention. Neanderthals and modern humans display significant developmental differences as well. Neanderthals, for example, spent a minimal time in adolescence compared to modern humans. The two hominins also exhibit significant genetic differences (which includes differences in gene expression patterns), most notably for genes that play a role in cognition and cognitive development. Most critically, modern humans and Neanderthals display significant behavioral differences that stem from substantial differences in cognitive capacity.

    Along these lines, it is important to note that researchers believe that the resulting human-Neanderthal hybrids lacked fecundity. 5 As geneticist David Reich notes, “Modern humans and Neanderthals were at the edge of biological compatibility.” 6

    In other words, even though modern humans and Neanderthals interbred, they displayed sufficient biological differences that are extensive enough to justify classing the two as distinct species, just as the RTB model predicts. The extensive behavioral differences also validate the view that modern humans are exceptional and unique in ways that align with the image of God—again, in accord with RTB model predictions.

    Is the RTB Human Origins Model Invalid?

    It is safe to say that most paleoanthropologists view modern humans and Neanderthals as distinct species (or at least distinct populations that were isolated from one another for over 500,000 to 600,000 years). From an evolutionary perspective, modern humans and Neanderthals share a common evolutionary ancestor, perhaps Homo heidelbergensis, and arose as separate species as the two lineages diverged from this ancestral population. In the evolutionary framework, the capacity of Neanderthals and modern humans to interbreed reflects their shared evolutionary heritage. For this reason, some critics have pointed to the interbreeding between modern humans and other hominins as a devastating blow to the RTB model and as clear-cut evidence for human evolution.

    In light of this concern, it is important to recognize that the RTB human origins model readily accommodates the evidence for interbreeding between modern humans and Neanderthals. Instead of reflecting a shared evolutionary ancestry, within a creation model framework, the capacity for interbreeding is a consequence of the biological designs shared by modern humans and Neanderthals.

    The RTB model’s stance that shared biological features represent common design taps into a rich tradition within the history of biology. Prior to Charles Darwin, life scientists such as the preeminent biologist Sir Richard Owen, routinely viewed homologous systems as manifestations of archetypal designs that resided in the Mind of the First Cause. The RTB human origins model co-opts Owen’s ideas and applies them to the biological features modern humans share with other creatures, including the hominins.

    Without question, the discovery that modern humans interbred with other hominins, stands as a failed prediction of the initial version of the RTB human origins model. However, this discovery can be accommodated by revising the model–as is often done in science. Of course, this leads to the next set of questions.

    • Is there biblical warrant to think that modern humans interbred with other creatures?
    • Did the modern human-Neanderthal hybrid have a soul? Did it bear God’s image?

    I will take on these questions in the next article. And I am telling you no lie.

      by Fazale Rana with Hugh Ross (book) by Fazale Rana (article) by Fazale Rana (article) by Fazale Rana (article)

    Biological Differences between Humans and Neanderthals


    Scientists Now Believe They Know Why Neanderthals Went Extinct

    Why did the Neanderthals go extinct? A new study points the blame at their ears. The path of human evolution is far from straight, and over the course of time several different versions of humanity rose and fell before Homo sapiens became the dominant species.

    Interestingly, even though the fossil record provides plenty of evidence that those early versions of man existed, it’s a lot more difficult to figure out why they fell. For example, we know that even though Homo sapiens and Neanderthals existed at the same time and even interbred, humans survived, and the Neanderthal line died out.

    What could have caused the Neanderthals to go extinct? Was it some sort of cataclysm? A plague?

    The cause has always been a mystery, but a new study sheds some light on the subject. Earlier this month, the New York Post reported on a study which was published in the journal The Anatomical Record, which suggests the Neanderthals may have been ended by something that we modern folks see as no big deal – common ear infections.

    The study was done by a group of physical anthropologists who reconstructed a Neanderthal Eustachian tube for the first time. What they saw was that Neanderthal Eustachian tubes are a lot like those of human infants, in terms of how they are positioned.

    Anatomical comparison of skulls of Homo sapiens (left) and Homo neanderthalensis (right)

    Any parent can tell you that babies get ear infections sometimes they get them often. That’s because a baby’s Eustachian tubes are at an angle that is relatively flat. As a result of the angle, otitis media bacteria tends to linger in them, rather than draining, and can cause infections.

    As human babies grow, and their heads get larger, their Eustachian tubes also grow, which changes the angle of their position and improves drainage. For humans, by the time a child starts school, the incidence of ear infections has reduced significantly.

    For Neanderthals, the relatively flat angle of their Eustachian tubes remained unchanged into adulthood, meaning that they never lost the higher potential for ear infections. Furthermore, ear infections can easily lead to developing other complications, such as meningitis, respiratory infections, hearing loss, or even pneumonia.

    Unlike in the modern era, when such ailments can be easily addressed with antibiotics, for the Neanderthals, the potential for such infections and the complications that can come with them would be both lifelong and impossible to effectively treat.

    Anatomy of the human ear. Photo by Lars Chittka Axel Brockmann CC by 2.5

    Besides making it more likely that the sufferer may die of an infection, there would have been other, lifelong implications. People who are ill aren’t functioning at their best capacity, which impairs their ability to do the things they need to do to survive.

    Shortness of breath would be a serious barrier to being an effective hunter. The inability to hear a dangerous animal or enemy coming at you until it was nearby would significantly decrease your chances of making an effective defense or escape. Such indirect consequences would generally make it harder to effectively compete for resources against your rivals, including Homo sapiens.

    Looked at from that perspective, it’s not that surprising that Homo sapiens won the contest.

    There are a couple of things that made this study so unique. One of them is that it gave researchers a totally unexpected insight into something that science has been puzzled by for a very long time. Another thing that’s fascinating is that something on such an enormous scale, the extinction of an entire species, could have been caused by something so small and unexpected.

    As far-fetched as it might seem at first glance, this one anatomical variation had the power to exert an enormous effect on the lives of one variety of early man. If nothing else, it serves to show that even small evolutionary adaptations and variations have the ability to shape lives in ways that can make or break us. Or in the case of Neanderthals, make them go extinct.


    Where did Neanderthals live?

    Neanderthals evolved in Europe and Asia while modern humans - our species, Homo sapiens - were evolving in Africa.

    Judging from fossil evidence from Sima de los Huesos in northern Spain and Swanscombe in Kent, the Neanderthal lineage was already well-established in Europe by 400,000 years ago.

    The species ranged widely in Eurasia, from Portugal and Wales in the west across to the Altai Mountains of Siberia in the east.

    Map showing the known range of Neanderthals © I Ryulong licensed under CC BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

    Neanderthal populations were adaptable, living in cold steppe environments in England and Siberia about 60,000 years ago, and in warm temperate woodlands in Spain and Italy about 120,000 years ago.


    Why are we the only human species still alive?

    Two million years ago in Africa, several species of human-like creatures roamed the landscape. Some looked surprisingly similar to each other, while others had distinct, defining features.

    In September 2015, another species was added to the list. Hundreds of bones discovered in a South African cave are now believed to belong to a new species, known as Homo naledi. There may well be many more extinct hominin species waiting to be uncovered.

    Our own species appeared around 200,000 years ago, at a time when several others existed. Yet today, only we remain. Why did we manage to survive when all of our closest relatives have died out?

    To start with, it's worth pointing out that extinction is a normal part of evolution. In that sense it may not seem surprising that human-like species &ndash known as "hominins" &ndash have died out.

    There is no evidence they were systematically preying on large animals

    But it is not obvious that the world only has room for one species of human. Our closest living relatives are the great apes, and there are six species alive today: chimpanzees, bonobos, two species of gorilla and two species of orangutan.

    There are some clues that reveal why some of our forebears were more successful than others.

    Several million years ago, when a great many hominin species lived side-by-side, they mainly ate plants. "There is no evidence they were systematically preying on large animals," says John Shea of Stony Brook University in New York, US.

    But as conditions changed, and hominins moved from the forests and trees to the drier open savannahs, they became increasingly carnivorous.

    Until quite recently, we still shared the planet with other early humans

    The problem was, the animals they hunted also had fewer plants to eat, so overall there was less food to go around. That competition drove some species extinct.

    "As human evolution pushed some members to be more carnivorous, you would expect to see less and less of them," says Shea.

    But while the switch to meat-eating clearly took its toll, it did not come close to leaving Earth a one-human planet. Until quite recently, we still shared the planet with other early humans.

    Rewind to 30,000 years ago. As well as modern humans, three other hominin species were around: the Neanderthals in Europe and western Asia, the Denisovans in Asia, and the "hobbits" from the Indonesian island of Flores.

    The Neanderthals were displaced very soon after modern humans encroached on their habitat

    The hobbits could have survived until as recently as 18,000 years ago. They may have been wiped out by a large volcanic eruption, according to geological evidence from the area. Living on one small island will also leave a species more vulnerable to extinction when disaster strikes.

    We do not know enough about the Denisovans to even ask why they died out. All we have from them is a small finger bone and two teeth.

    However, we know a lot more about the Neanderthals, simply because we have known about them for much longer and have many fossils. So to get at why we are the only human species left standing, we must rely on figuring out why they died out.

    The archaeological evidence strongly suggests that the Neanderthals somehow lost out to modern humans, says Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. The Neanderthals were displaced very soon after modern humans encroached on their habitat, which Hublin says can't be a coincidence.

    Neanderthals were better adapted to hunting in woodland environments than modern humans

    Neanderthals evolved long before us, and lived in Europe well before we arrived. By the time we got to Europe, just over 40,000 years ago, Neanderthals had been successfully living there for over 200,000 years, ample time to adapt to the chilly climate. They wore warm clothes, were formidable hunters and had sophisticated stone tools.

    But when Europe began experiencing rapid climate change, some researchers argue, the Neanderthals may have struggled.

    The temperature was not the main issue, says John Stewart of Bournemouth University in the UK. Instead, the colder climate changed the landscape they lived in, and they did not adapt their hunting style to suit it.

    Neanderthals were better adapted to hunting in woodland environments than modern humans.

    But when Europe's climate began fluctuating, the forests became more open, becoming more like the African savannahs that modern humans were used to. The forests, which provided most of Neanderthals' food, dwindled and could no longer sustain them.

    Modern humans also seemed to hunt a greater range of species.

    As well as large game, they also hunted smaller animals like hares and rabbits.

    In contrast, there is little evidence that Neanderthals hunted similar small ground mammals according to analyses of archaeological sites in Iberia where the Neanderthals clung on the longest.

    We had a greater range of innovative and deadly tools

    Their tools were better suited for hunting bigger animals, so even if they tried, they may not have been successful at catching small animals. Though there is evidence they ate birds, they may have lured them in with the remains of other dead animal carcasses, rather than actively hunting them in the sky.

    All in all, "modern humans seemed to have a greater number of things they could do when put under stress," says Stewart. This ability to innovate and adapt may explain why we replaced Neanderthals so quickly.

    "Faster innovation leads to better efficiency and exploitation in the environment and therefore a higher reproductive success," says Hublin.

    He believes that there is something intrinsic to modern humans that helped us adapt so quickly. There is some evidence for that.

    We know Neanderthal tools were remarkably efficient for the tasks they used them for, but when we arrived into Europe ours were better. The archaeological evidence suggests that we had a greater range of innovative and deadly tools.

    But tools are not the only things modern humans made. We also created something else, which helped us outcompete every other species on Earth: symbolic art.

    Our extinct relatives may have been able to speak

    Genetic analysis suggests that Neanderthals and Denisovans both had the capacity for language. They carried the genes that allow us to finely control how our tongues move.

    However, our heads were shaped differently to theirs, says Shea. That suggests we are better at making certain sounds.

    Our face is situated directly under our brain, allowing us to break up sounds in short segments.

    In contrast, Neanderthals and other ancient hominins had their faces further to the front of their skulls. "This makes it difficult to sort out particular sounds, like vowels," says Shea.

    That does not necessarily mean they could not talk. Instead, it may indicate their language was more like song.

    Shortly after modern humans left Africa, there is ample evidence that they were making art. Archaeologists have found ornaments, jewellery, figurative depictions of mythical animals and even musical instruments.

    "When modern humans hit the ground [in Europe], their populations went up quickly," says Nicholas Conard at the University of Tübingen in Germany, who has discovered several such relics. As our numbers swelled, we began living in much more complex social units, and needed more sophisticated ways to communicate.

    By 40,000 years ago, humans in Europe were making things any of us would recognise as art. One of the most striking is a wooden carving of a lion-human statue, called the Löwenmensch, found in a cave in Germany. Similar sculptures from the same period have been found elsewhere in Europe.

    They didn't need a whole arsenal of symbolic artefacts to get the job done

    This suggests that we were sharing information across cultural groups from different areas, rather than keeping knowledge to ourselves. It seems art was a critical part of our identity, helping to bring different groups together.

    In other words, symbols were a kind of social glue. They could "help people organise their social and economic affairs with one another," says Conard.

    In stark contrast, Neanderthals didn't seem to need art or symbols. There is limited evidence they made some jewellery, but not to the extent we did. "They did their hunting, cooking, sleeping, eating, sex and recreation. They didn't need a whole arsenal of symbolic artefacts to get the job done."

    For humans, the sharing of symbolic information has been crucial to our success. Every new idea we pick up has the chance to become immortal by being passed down through the generations. That is how language spread, for example.

    They found a rut and were stuck in it

    The fact that we made any art at all, using the same hands that made all those tools, also points to our unique capacity for behavioural variability, says Shea.

    "We do everything more than one distinct way," he says. "Often, the solutions we devise for one problem, we can repurpose to solve a different one. This is something we do exclusively well."

    Other ancient hominins seemed to do the same thing over and over again. "They found a rut and were stuck in it."

    Did we have a superior brain to thank for this?

    That has long been a popular view. Illustrations of human evolution like the one above often show a progression from ape-like creatures to modern humans, with ever bigger brains as things went on.

    Most Europeans only developed a tolerance to lactose when our ancestors started to eat more dairy produce

    In reality, our evolutionary story is more complicated than that. Homo erectus survived for a long time and was the first hominin species to expand out of Africa &ndash before even the Neanderthals &ndash but its brain was quite small.

    As a result, some anthropologists are uncomfortable with the idea that big brains were the solution. Our big brains may have played a role in our success, but Neanderthals had equally large brains compared to their body size.

    Hublin says there is a more refined explanation.

    We know that our behaviour, or the circumstances in which we find ourselves, can change our genetic make-up.

    There are important differences between us and our Neanderthal and Denisovan relatives

    For instance, most Europeans only developed a tolerance to lactose when our ancestors started to eat more dairy produce. Genetic changes can also occur when large populations are faced with devastating diseases such as the Black Death in the 14th Century, which changed the genes of survivors.

    In a similar vein, Hublin proposes that modern humans, at some point, benefited from key genetic changes.

    For the first 100,000 years of our existence, modern humans behaved much like Neanderthals. then something changed. Our tools became more complex, around the time when we started developing symbolic artefacts.

    We now have genetic evidence to suggest that our DNA changed at some point after we split from the common ancestor we shared with Neanderthals.

    When peering into our genetic make-up, there are important differences between us and our Neanderthal and Denisovan relatives. Geneticists have identified several dozen points in our genome that are unique to us, and several of them are involved in brain development.

    Before we developed these abilities, modern humans and other hominins were fairly evenly matched

    This suggests that while Neanderthals may have had a similar brain size to ours, it may have been the way our brains developed over our lifetimes that was key to our success.

    We don't know what benefits these genetic changes had. But others have suggested that it is our hyper-social, cooperative brain that sets us apart. From language and culture to war and love, our most distinctively human behaviours all have a social element.

    That means it could be our propensity for social living that led to our ability to use symbols and make art.

    For tens of thousands of years, before we developed these abilities, modern humans and other hominins were fairly evenly matched, says Conard. Any other species could have taken our place.

    But they did not, and eventually we out-competed them. As our population exploded, the other species retreated and eventually disappeared altogether.

    If that's true, we might have our creativity to thank for our survival.

    But there is one other possibility, which we can't entirely ignore. Maybe it was pure chance. Maybe our species got lucky and survived, while the Neanderthals drew the short straw.

    Melissa Hogenboom is BBC Earth's feature writer. She is @melissasuzanneh on Twitter.


    Neanderthals Died Out 10,000 Years Earlier Than Thought, With Help From Modern Humans

    New fossil dates show our ancient cousins disappeared 40,000 years ago.

    The Neanderthals died out about 10,000 years earlier than previously thought, new fossil dating suggests, adding to evidence that the arrival of modern humans in Europe pushed our ancient Stone Age cousins into extinction. (Read "Last of the Neanderthals" in National Geographic magazine.)

    Neanderthals' mysterious disappearance from the fossil record has long puzzled scholars who wondered whether the species went extinct on its own or was helped on its way out by Europe's first modern human migrants.

    "When did the Neanderthals disappear, and why?" says Tom Higham of the United Kingdom's University of Oxford, who authored the new fossil dating study published on Wednesday in the journal Nature. "That has always been the big question."

    His research bolsters the idea that Europe's first modern human arrivals played a role. The new fossil dating suggests that Neanderthals died out in isolated patches across western Europe, with small areas overlapping in mosaic fashion for thousands of years with the arrival sites of the first modern humans there.

    A doughty branch of the early human family, Neanderthals were big-brained and thick-boned hunters who once ranged from Spain to Siberia. Neanderthals begin appearing in the fossil record some 250,000 years ago and were thought to have dwindled to their last refuges about 30,000 years ago.

    The results suggest that while Europe was a Neanderthal stronghold about 45,000 years ago, the species vanished within 5,400 years.

    The new finding relies on 196 samples of animal bones, shells, and charcoal taken from 40 Neanderthal cave sites reaching from Gibraltar to the Caucasus. Largely from prey species such as deer, bison, and mammoth, the bones all bear cut marks from a type of stone blade that Neanderthals used.

    "Some previously dated bones were only loosely associated with Neanderthals," Higham says. "We wanted ones we were sure they had handled."

    Dating those bones suggests that Neanderthals underwent a population decrease around 50,000 years ago that left them isolated in patches, just about the time that early modern humans arrived.

    Competitive pressure from those early Europeans, who hunted many of the same prey species, may have helped isolate Neanderthals, hastening the extinction of a branch of humankind that had previously weathered ice ages and what geneticists call "population bottlenecks."

    "In ecology when you see a species that is isolated and losing genetic diversity, you are seeing one that is often on the way out," Higham says. "I think most of my colleagues would agree that having modern humans around played some role in the disappearance of the Neanderthals."

    The new arrivals may have spurred an era of stone tool use among the Neanderthals that overlaps with the arrival time of the new migrants.

    But a large volcano that erupted in Italy around the time of Neanderthal demise may have hurt both populations. On top of that, a cooling climate event around 40,000 years ago in Europe may have "delivered the coup de grâce to a Neanderthal population that was already low in numbers and genetic diversity, and trying to cope with economic competition from incoming groups of Homo sapiens," says Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London.

    Stringer praised the new research: "The overall pattern seems clear—the Neanderthals had largely, and perhaps entirely, vanished from their known range by 39,000 years ago."

    In a commentary accompanying the study, archaeologist William Davies of the United Kingdom's University of Southampton said the study "has thrown down the gauntlet, and future researchers will need to try hard to demonstrate Neanderthal survival in Europe after 40,000 years ago."

    Paleontologist Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St. Louis was critical, however, calling parts of the study "wrong" and suggesting that some of its samples weren't truly from Neanderthal layers at cave sites.

    "This is nothing new or newsworthy," he said by email. "We have long known that the disappearance of Neandertals was a long, slow and complex process."

    Trinkaus's research has supported sites in Spain as a last refuge for the Neanderthals, an idea the new study finds no evidence for.

    A study co-author and radiocarbon dating expert, Rachel Wood of the Australian National University in Canberra, defended the samples, noting that the cave layer dates conform to independently dated volcanic ash measures. The ages of the layers also made sense, such that "the dates at the bottom of the site are older than those at the top. This is completely different to the situation ten years ago where dates were often completely mixed."

    More accurate dating at Neanderthal sites in recent years has generally pushed back the 30,000-year date for Neanderthal extinction, says paleontologist Katerina Harvati of Germany's University of Tuebingen, making the new study results look more reasonable. "In my view this work represents the foundation of a uniform chronological framework for Neanderthal studies," she said by email.

    In recent years, studies of Neanderthal genes retrieved from ancient fossils have revealed that early modern humans mated with their cousins in antiquity. This interbreeding is thought to have happened more than 60,000 years ago and has left traces in about one to two percent of the gene maps of modern people of non-African origin.

    The Neanderthal genes that turn up in people today are from this older era, after the two species were in contact but well before Neanderthal extinction. The intermingling seen in the new study took place after that early interbreeding era, Higham says. That's not to say that they didn't continue to mate during the later European overlap in ranges, he adds, but any genes transferred during those liaisons haven't turned up so far in genetics research.


    Prehistoric man lived with and loved Neanderthals in the Negev 50,000 years ago

    Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

    A new multidisciplinary archaeological study attempting to define when and where early man first met and lived alongside his older Neanderthal cousins has pinpointed that meet-cute to Israel’s Negev Desert some 50,000 years ago.

    According to the study, it is during this time period that the ancestors of modern humans may have bred with their Neanderthal neighbors, resulting in a lasting Neanderthal genetic fingerprint even after the species itself died out.

    “What was the nature of the encounter we have identified between the two human species? Did Neanderthals throughout the country become naturally extinct, merging with modern man, or did they disappear in violent ways? These questions will continue to concern us as researchers in the coming years,” said Dr. Omry Barzilai, excavation director at the Boker Tachtit site on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

    According to an IAA press release, this is the first study that provides scientifically gathered and analyzed evidence for the coexistence of the two prehistoric cultures in the Middle East.

    “This goes to show that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens in the Negev coexisted and most likely interacted with one another, resulting in not only genetic interbreeding, as is postulated by the ‘recent African origin’ theory, but also in cultural exchange,” said lead authors Prof. Elisabetta Boaretto of the Weizmann Institute of Science and the IAA’s Barzilai in a Weizmann press release.

    Part of the evidence was gathered from a recent excavation of Boker Tachtit, located south of modern-day Kibbutz Sde Boker. “Boker Tachtit is the first known site reached by modern man outside Africa, which is why the site and its precise dating are so important,” said Barzilai.

    According to the study’s authors, through new hi-tech methods and reevaluation of old samples, the researchers have successfully identified the earliest evidence of modern human activity that was concurrently occurring alongside Neanderthal inhabitation in the same region.

    The study, which is published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) journal on Wednesday, uses traditional archaeological methods, as well as laboratory carbon-14 dating methodology and new hi-tech optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dates.

    “The dating of the site to 50,000 years ago proves that modern man lived in the Negev at the same time as Neanderthal man, who we know inhabited the region in the same period. There is no doubt that, as they dwelt in and moved around the Negev, the two species were aware of each other’s existence. Our research on the Boker Tachtit site places an important, well-defined reference point on the timeline of human evolution,” said Barzilai.

    Written by a large team including Weizmann’s Boaretto and the IAA’s Barzilai, the PNAS article, “The absolute chronology of Boker Tachtit (Israel) and implications for the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition in the Levant,” describes how recent chronological studies based on radiocarbon dating from other sites in the Levant spurred the team to rethink the previously recognized dating at the Boker Tachtit site, determined from earlier excavations.

    So the team, funded by the Max Planck-Weizmann Center for the Integrative Archaeology and Anthropology, conducted new excavations from 2013-2015 and gathered very small individual fragments of wood charcoal. At least a millimeter in their longest dimension, the minuscule samples were analyzed by Boaretto and her Weizmann lab.

    The samples belonged to four major species: Pistacia atlantica (a species of pistachio tree), Juniperus cf phoenicea (Phoenician juniper), Tamarix sp. (tamarisk, salt cedar) and Hammada scoparia. According to the article, the radiocarbon dating samples were from clear archaeological contexts that could be associated with significant flint concentrations, which provide a source of typological dating.

    The C-14 dates and the optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dates overlap between 50,000 and 44,000 years ago, a range of 6,000 years.

    “We are now able to conclude with greater confidence that the Middle-to-Upper Paleolithic transition was a rather fast-evolving event that began at Boker Tachtit approximately 50-49,000 years ago and ended about 44,000 years ago,” said Boaretto in a Weizman press release.

    According to the study, a lot went down during this relatively short period and it corresponds to three periods earmarked by early man’s development and dispersal in the Levant: Late Middle Paleolithic (LMP), Initial Upper Paleolithic (IUP) and Early Upper Paleolithic (EUP).

    “For the first time in prehistoric research, the results of the dating prove the hypothesis that there was definitely a spatial overlap between the late Mousterian culture, identified with Neanderthal man, and the Emiran culture, which is associated with the emergence of modern man in the Middle East,” said Barzilai.

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    Climate Change May Have Contributed To The Extinction Of Neanderthals And Rise Of Modern Humans

    A research team of the University of Cologne in Germany has published an open access paper arguing that a series of cold, dry phases during the last European ice-age triggered the demise and finally lead to the extinction of Neanderthals in Europe.

    The oldest evidence of any hominids in Europe date back 700,000 to 600,000 years ago. At that time, Europe was covered in forests, with many large animals, like elephants, rhinoceroses, horses, deer and large bovines, roaming free. As prey species were abundant, different subspecies of the genus Homo could coexist contemporarily. From 350,000 to 40,000 years ago Neanderthals (H. neanderthalensis) became the dominant human species in Europe.

    Skullcap of H. neanderthalensis from Central Europe.

    As during the ice-age, starting some 125,000 years ago, the climate cooled and Central Europe became inhospitable, they survived in refugial areas located along the southern borders of the European continent. In the next 60,000 years the climate oscillated between long, cold phases and short warm intervals. Pollen analysis shows that during the cold phases the forests, covering the continent during the warm intervals, were quickly replaced by a shrub-filled grassland.

    Some 43,000 to 40,000 years ago sites with artifacts by Neanderthals disappear from the archaeological record, to be replaced by the culture of the Aurignacian, characterized by artifacts (like stone tools, prehistoric art and even musical instruments) attributed to the modern human species H. sapiens. Analyzing the chemical properties of annually deposited layers of stalagmites from two caves in modern Romania, the scientists were able to reconstruct the climate in Central and Eastern Europe between 44,000 and 40,000 years ago.

    In this 2013 photo provided by Bogdan Onac, researcher Vasile Ersek stands in the Ascunsa Cave in . [+] Romania, one of the studied sites.

    A drop in global temperatures marks the beginning of the last ice-age some 125,000 years ago. 70,000 to 60,000 years ago the climate temporarily stabilizes, becoming warmer again. 50,000 years ago, as the large ice-shields of North America melted in response to the warming climate, a large quantity of freshwater flowing into the Atlantic Ocean slowed down the oceanic currents. As those currents are important to carry warm water and air towards Europe, the continent experienced a chaotic pattern of cooling phases interrupted by short, dry pulses. The studied cave deposits show two pronounced cooling episodes 44,000 to 43,000 and 40,800 to 40,200 years ago. 42,000 ago also the climate in Europe became much drier. In response the forests covering most of the continent were quickly replaced by grassland. The last traces of Neanderthals are found before this phase. During the cold and dry phase any signs of human activity disappear completely. When the climate warms again new artifacts appear in the archaeological record, attributed to modern humans. The research argues that in the cold, dry grassland also large animals were rare. Neanderthals, a society of specialized hunters, would have faced a hard time to survive without large preys to hunt. Unlike previous cold phases, also this time the southern refugial areas were occupied by a new human species, as modern humans were migrating from the Near East into Europe. The already small populations of Neanderthals were forced to stay in the tundra and unable to hunt there large prey, they numbers quickly dwindled. Finally Neanderthals went extinct 40,000 years ago. The now empty landscape was quickly claimed by modern humans, migrating from the southern borders into the heart of Europe, as the climate became more hospitable again 40,000 to 35,000 years ago.

    As compelling this scenario appears, some unanswered problems remain. Neanderthals were one of the most successful human species, surviving more than 300,000 years of climate change. In the past, they apparently were able to adapt both to the changing environment as changes in prey populations. The ice-age grassland, unlike the modern tundra, was a nutrient-rich landscape and able to sustain large herds of herbivores, like mammoths, horses and reindeers. Also, the role modern humans played in the demise of the Neanderthals remains unclear. Some recent archaeological finds suggest that instead of mutual competition, there was an cultural exchange, even of genetic material, between the different human species.


    In 1908, the first nearly complete skeleton of a Neanderthal was found at La Chapelle-aux-Saints in France. Because he suffered from a degenerative joint disease, this skeleton was originally reconstructed as stooped over. This slouching posture came to exemplify our image of Neanderthals, but it was later found that this reconstruction was incorrect.


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