Climate Change Killed Neandertals, Study Says

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
February 9, 2004

Both Neandertals and the first humans to reach Europe struggled with the changing conditions brought by increasingly cold temperatures, according to a study by 30 scientists.

The two species coexisted in Europe from roughly 45,000 to 28,000 years ago when the Neandertals died out. Why humans survived and the Neandertals didn't has puzzled archaeologists for over a century.

Theories have ranged from interspecies genocide to interbreeding to humans' superior communication skills, hunting technology, and social organization.

The new study—a seven-year effort that combined the work of 30 scientists from 11 nations—suggests, however, that the inability to adapt to climate change led to the Neandertals' demise.

"It's not that it got too cold for them; both humans and Neandertals had clothing such as fur mantles," said Jerry van Andel, a geologist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom who led the study.

Rather, researchers believe Neandertals failed to adapt their hunting methods when big game species like mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius), bison (Bison bonasus), and red deer (Cervus elaphus) fled south and the once-forested landscape of Europe changed into a sparsely vegetated steppe and half desert during the last Ice Age.

Neandertals, who once relied on forest cover to sneak up and club or stab herd animals, proved far less effective hunters when stalking new, more dispersed game animals, especially without camouflage. Eating less, Neandertals grew weak, succumbing more often to disease and other threats. While early humans also struggled, they ultimately survived their changing environment.

"The big advantage modern humans had was improved hunting technology, a more complex social organization, and expanded use of resources that allowed them to move from a more sedentary lifestyle to adapt to the conditions wrought by colder temperatures," he said.

The study, Neanderthal and Modern Humans in the European Landscape of the Last Glaciation, was published last month by the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research Monographs.

Myth of Cold-Adapted Species

Scientists combined data on temperature, landscape, and vegetation of the paleoenvironment with maps of archaeological sites and plotted how these variables changed over time. This enabled them to track the movements of both Neanderthals and early humans.

Their findings punctured the long-held idea that Neandertals were a "cold-adapted" species. The theory holds that Neandertals' shorter limbs and massive trunks (traits seen in populations living in Arctic conditions today) made them physiologically well suited to live in colder temperatures.

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