How climate change helped Homo sapiens replace Neanderthals across Europe: Researchers find cold, dry shifts coincided with the emergence of modern humans
- Researchers found that cold periods coincided with an apparent disappearance of our evolutionary cousins in different parts of the continent
- Their study highlighted two cold and dry periods.
- This was followed by the appearance of our species, Homo sapiens
- ‘Whether they moved or died out, we can’t tell,’ researchers say
Ancient periods of cold and dry climate helped our species replace Neanderthals in Europe, a new study has concluded.
Researchers found that such cold periods coincided with an apparent disappearance of our evolutionary cousins in different parts of the continent, followed by the appearance of our species, Homo sapiens.
‘Whether they moved or died out, we can’t tell,’ said Michael Staubwasser of the University of Cologne in Germany.
In this 2013 photo provided by Bogdan Onac, researcher Vasile Ersek stands in the Ascunsa Cave in Romania. Researchers used data from this cave and another to document two lengthy cold and dry periods that they believe helped our species replace Neanderthals in Europe
Neanderthals once lived in Europe and Asia but died out about 40,000 years ago, just a few thousand years after our species, Homo sapiens, arrived in Europe.
Scientists have long debated what happened, and some have blamed the change in climate.
Other proposed explanations have included epidemics and the idea that the newcomers edged out the Neanderthals for resources.
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Early humans survived and flourished thanks to their uncanny ability to adapt to extreme places and climates. Homo sapiens conquered all four corners of the world (pictured), from mountainous landscapes of Siberia and the rainforests of South america
Staubwasser and colleagues reported their findings Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
They drew on existing climate, archaeological and ecological data and added new indicators of ancient climate from studies of two caves in Romania.
Their study highlighted two cold and dry periods.
Tausoare Cave in the East Carpathians, Romania: Researchers drew on existing climate, archaeological and ecological data and added new indicators of ancient climate from studies of two caves in Romania, including this one
One began about 44,000 years ago and lasted about 1,000 years.
The other began about 40,800 years ago and lasted six centuries.
The timing of those events matches the periods when artifacts from Neanderthals disappear and signs of H. sapiens appear in sites within the Danube River valley and in France, they noted.
WHO WERE THE NEANDERTHALS?
The Neanderthals were a close human ancestor that mysteriously died out around 50,000 years ago.
The species lived in Africa with early humans for hundreds of millennia before moving across to Europe around 500,000 years ago.
They were later joined by humans taking the same journey some time in the past 100,000 years.
The Neanderthals were a close human ancestor that perished around 50,000 years ago. The species lived in Africa with early humans before moving across to Europe around 500,000 years ago. Pictured is a Neanderthal museum exhibit
These were the original ‘cavemen’, historically thought to be dim-witted and brutish compared to modern humans.
In recent years though, and especially over the last decade, it has become increasingly apparent we’ve been selling Neanderthals short.
A growing body of evidence points to a more sophisticated and multi-talented kind of ‘caveman’ than anyone thought possible.
It now seems likely that Neanderthals buried their dead with the concept of an afterlife in mind.
Additionally, their diets and behaviour were surprisingly flexible.
They used body art such as pigments and beads, and they were the very first artists, with Neanderthal cave art (and symbolism) in Spain apparently predating the earliest modern human art by some 20,000 years.
The climate shifts would have replaced forest with shrub-filled grassland, and H. sapiens may have been better adapted to that new environment than the Neanderthals were, so they could move in after Neanderthals disappeared, the researchers wrote.
Katerina Harvati, a Neanderthal expert at the University of Tuebingen in Germany who wasn’t involved in the study, said it’s helpful to have the new climate data from southeastern Europe, a region that H. sapiens is thought to have used to spread through the continent.
But she said it’s unclear whether Neanderthals disappeared and H. sapiens appeared at the times the authors indicate, because the studies they cite rely on limited evidence and are sometimes open to dispute.
Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London said he thought the paper made a good case for an impact of the climate shifts on Neanderthals, although he believes other factors were also at work in their disappearance.
Rick Potts of the Smithsonian Institution called the study ‘a refreshing new look’ at the species replacement.
‘As has been said before, our species didn’t outsmart the Neanderthals,’ Potts said in an email.
‘We simply outsurvived them. The new paper offers much to contemplate about how it occurred.’
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT HUMANKIND’S JOURNEY OUT OF AFRICA?
The traditional view
The traditional ‘Out of Africa’ model suggests that modern humans evolved in Africa and then left in a single wave around 60,000 years ago.
The model often holds once modern humans left the continent, a brief period of interbreeding with Neanderthals occurred.
This explains why individuals of European and Asian heritage today still have ancient human DNA.
There are many theories as to what drove the downfall of the Neanderthals.
Experts have suggested that early humans may have carried tropical diseases with them from Africa that wiped out their ape-like cousins.
Others claim that plummeting temperatures due to climate change wiped out the Neanderthals.
The predominant theory is that early humans killed off the Neanderthal through competition for food and habitat.
How the story is changing in light of new research
Recent findings suggest that the ‘Out of Africa’ theory does not tell the full story of our ancestors.
Instead, multiple, smaller movements of humans out of Africa beginning 120,000 years ago were then followed by a major migration 60,000 years ago.
Most of our DNA is made up of this latter group, but the earlier migrations, also known as ‘dispersals’, are still evident.
This explains recent studies of early human remains which have been found in the far reaches of Asia dating back further than 60,000 years.
For example, H. sapiens remains have been found at multiple sites in southern and central China that have been dated to between 70,000 and 120,000 years ago.
Other recent finds show that modern humans reached Southeast Asia and Australia prior to 60,000 years ago.
Based on these studies, humans could not have come in a single wave from Africa around this time, studies have found.
Instead, the origin of man suggests that modern humans developed in multiple regions around the world.
The theory claims that groups of a pre-human ancestors made their way out of Africa and spread across parts of Europe and the Middle East.
From here the species developed into modern humans in several places at once.
The argument is by a new analysis of a 260,000-year-old skull found in Dali County in China’s Shaanxi Province.
The skull suggests that early humans migrated to Asia, where they evolved modern human traits and then moved back to Africa.
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