for National Geographic News
Ever since evidence of Neandertals was discovered in Germany in 1856, the question of what happened to them has captured the popular imagination.
This hairy, thickset species of human vanished some 35,000 years ago. Neandertals' disappearance coincided with an influx of modern humans (Homo sapiens) to Europe and western Asia, leading scientists to speculate that the two events are closely linked.
Now a new study, published tomorrow in the journal Nature, suggests that the modern humans' more sophisticated communication skills may have helped to finish off the Neandertals (Homo neanderthalensis).
The study's author, Paul Mellars, professor of prehistory and human evolution at Cambridge University in England, bases his theory on existing evidence.
Many scientists call the first modern humans to reach Europe from Africa the Aurignacians. Using archaeological clues such as bone tools and ivory ornaments, researchers have traced the Aurignacians' advance through the Middle East and Europe.
Radiocarbon dating of these finds suggests the Aurignacians' advance took place between 40,000 and 35,000 years ago.
Mellars says this is supported by radiocarbon dating of the earliest known remains of anatomically modern humans. Likewise, he said, recent DNA studies of present-day humans suggest that the modern humans spread across Europe during the same period.
And it was during this period that the Neandertals suddenly disappeared, despite 200,000 years of successful adaptation to the glacial conditions that would grip Europe for another 30,000 years.
So why were the Neandertals replaced so abruptly by Homo sapiens?
The answer, Mellars says, may lie in language.
He says the Aurignacian period "shows an apparently sudden flowering of all the most distinctive features of fully 'modern' cultural behavior."
The study cites archaeological remains that reflect a relatively sophisticated system of communication. Examples include the first carefully shaped bone tools, stone beads and other personal ornaments, and sophisticated forms of both abstract and figurative art. Aurignacians are thought to have created ivory statuettes of humans and animals found in southern Germany and elaborate cave paintings in southeastern France.
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES