I’ve been fascinated by this question for years. My suspicion has always been that we played a major role in the extinction of the Neanderthals, and the evidence has been building over the past decade. Right off the bat there’s the timing of their demise. Neanderthals had lived in Europe for at least 300,000 years braving all sorts of dramatic climate changes, then we showed up and they were gone in about 5,000 years – a geologic eye blink. There’s a lot of arguing among archeologists and anthropologists about just how fast it was – whether it was 5,000 years or 2,000 years. It depends on whether you accept some 45,000 year old Early Modern Human (EMH) fossils in southern Italy or not. If so, they’re the earliest EMH fossils in Europe. If not, then the earliest are Romanian fossils that are only 41,400 years old. Since Neanderthals were gone by 39,000 years ago…well, you can do the math.
That’s one thing I’ve learned in my research – archaeologists and anthropologists can’t agree on anything – even how to spell archaeology (archeology?) or how to pronounce Neanderthal (tal or thal?). But the bottom line is that Neanderthals died out soon after we arrived on the scene. Thomas Higham and others (2014) have shown that they died out in space and time throughout Europe as we encroached on their territory and replaced them. There’s CSI type evidence as well. A Duke University research team led by Steven Churchill in 2009 determined that a Neanderthal in the Middle East had died from a spear thrown by an Early Modern Human. Hard to believe they could solve this ultimate “cold case”, but they put out some pretty strong evidence.
In 2009 Danny Vendramini wrote a fascinating book called Them + Us, and although I don’t agree with a lot of it, I like his premises that Neanderthals were the apex predator in Europe for hundreds of thousands of years (they were), Neanderthals were cannibals, at least in part (they were), and they likely preyed on EMHs or at least kept us from entering Europe until we developed technologies or cultures that could overcome them. Keep in mind that EMHs developed in Africa at least 200,000 years ago (this date keeps being pushed back farther into time), and for more than 150,000 years of that, we never made it into Europe. Okay, there were broad deserts in northern Africa and the southern Middle East that undoubtedly played a role in keeping us out of Europe. It’s also possible however, that we needed technology developments like the atlatl (spear thrower) or being able to make fire from scratch to overcome the Neanderthals and the climate of Europe (spoiler alert: you may find that both of these play a role in my novel Moctu and the Mammoth People).
In recorded history there are unfortunately many cases where we have committed genocide against even members of our own species. We have a bloodthirsty, xenophobic streak, a seemingly innate dislike of people who look or act differently from us. We may not have sought out the Neanderthals and exterminated them as Vendramini and some others suggest. We may have simply out-competed them for scarce game. Ezra Zubrow (1989) has shown that a one percent difference in mortality between us and Neanderthals could have produced their extinction in as little as 1000 years.
Alternatively, we may have brought Neanderthals diseases from Africa that decimated them. In the early 1500’s, Cortes unintentionally brought smallpox to the Aztecs and saw a die off of between 60-90%. The Aztec empire went from 30 million people to 3 million in just a few years by some accounts. During the early 1600’s, European settlers in New England, saw a near eradication of the surrounding Native Americans as epidemics swept through the Massachusetts and Algonquin tribes, killing 90% or more of them.
The already-crashing Neanderthal population may have been finished off by one or both of two devastating events. The huge Campanian Ignimbrite eruption in Italy 39,000 years ago was perhaps the second most devastating volcanic eruption in the world over the past million years. It in turn, may have prompted the second event, a closely-following Heinrich 4 severe chilling episode (these are where thousands of huge icebergs break off from the northern ice caps and float southward along the coast of Europe).
So did we kill them off? Almost certainly we played a role, and most courts today would convict us based on the circumstantial evidence. There were three other species of Homo (H. denisovans, H. erectus, and H. floresiensis) around elsewhere in the world at this same time, and they disappeared about the time we showed up. But we’ll save discussing them for another day.
Vote now for what the next blog subject should be:
- We interbred with Neanderthals. Did we really get predispositions for Type 2 diabetes, lupus, Crohn’s disease – and some good stuff as well- from them? All people of European and Asian heritage carry Neanderthal genetics, anywhere from 1-5% (I have over 3% myself). We got better virus-fighting abilities from them, but it came at a cost. We also got predispositions for the above-mentioned ailments, as well as actinic keratosis (skin lesions), depression, some addictions, and biliary cirrhosis.
- Did we (EMHs) almost become extinct 60k-70k years ago? Subsequent to the Mount Toba supervolcano eruption in Sumatra about 73,000 years ago – and the following six year volcanic winter, EMH populations dwindled to about 2000 individuals worldwide. We can tell this from the startling lack of genetic diversity among humans. Genetic dating indicates this severe bottleneck happened about 60,000 years ago.
- Was there really a great flood in EMH pre-history? Yes, probably several of them. Lake Agassiz in the Michigan-Manitoba area was a very large glacial lake – bigger than any lake in the world today, including the Caspian Sea. It had several episodes of rapid draining due to ice dam breaches that were of such magnitudes that they had significant impact on climate, sea level and possibly early human civilization. The draining of 13,000 years ago may be the cause of the Younger Dryas stadial. A recent study by Turney and Brown links the 8,500-years ago drainage (which raised sea level by as much as 9 feet) to the expansion of agriculture from east to west across Europe, and they suggest that this may also account for various flood legends and stories including the Biblical flood of Noah. In the western US, breaching of ice dams by Lake Missoula caused the Channeled Scablands and probably led to flood legends that are found in many Native American tribes. More water flowed out of Lake Missoula for a few days than all the rivers in the world combined.
- When we (Early Modern Humans) came upon the scene, what other hominin species were here and what were they like? What happened to them? Besides Neanderthals, there were at least three other hominid species: Denisovans, Homo erectus, and Homo floresiensis (the ‘Hobbit People’). We’ll find out why we’re the lone survivor.
Higham, T. et al. (2014) ‘The timing and spaciotemporal patterning of Neanderthal disappearance’ Nature, v 512, p306-309.
Benazzi, S. et al. (2011) ‘Early dispersal of modern humans in Europe and implications for Neanderthal behavior’ Nature 479, 525-528.
Trinkaus E. and Zilhão J. (2013) ‘Paleoanthropological Implications of the Peştera cu Oase and Its Contents’ in Trinkaus E., Constantin S., Zilhão J., editors. Life and Death at the Peştera cu Oase: A Setting for Modern Human Emergence in Europe, Oxford University Press; pp. 389-400.
Churchill, S. et al. (2009) ‘Shanidar 3 Neanderthal rib puncture wound and paleolithic weaponry’ Journal of Human Evolution 57, 2009 p163-178.
Vendramini, D. (2009) Them + Us, Kardoorair Press.
Cavalli-Sforza, L. and Cavalli-Sforza, F. (1995) The Great Human Diasporas, Reading Mass: Addison-Wesley.
Zubrow, E. (1989) ‘The demographic modelling of Neanderthal extinction’ The Human Revolution (ed. P Mellars and C. Stringer) 212-231.
Crosby, A. (2014) The Columbian Exchange, The Gilder Lehrman Insitute of American History.
Oppenheimer, S. (2003) The Real Eve, Carroll & Graf Publishers.
Black, B. et al. (2015) ‘Campanian Ignimbrite volcanism, climate, and the final decline of the Neanderthals’ Geology, 2015, DOI: 10.1130/G36514.1.
Stringer, C. (2012) Lone Survivors Times Books.