What Killed Off The Neanderthals?

One of the most compelling mysteries besides what happened before the big bang and how life began, is the question of what killed the Neanderthals? Hey everyone, Julia here for DNews Neanderthals have captured our imaginations since they were first discovered in 1856 in a cave in Neander Valley, near Dusseldorf, Germany. They weren’t human, but they were just so much like us. We share a common ancestor with Neanderthals about 500,000 years ago. And like us, they came out of Africa and made their way across Europe and Asia, but long before we did. Perhaps as early as 230,000 years ago, while humans didn’t leave Africa until 60,000 years ago. We know a few things about them. Like, ancient humans weren’t all that different or better than the Neanderthals. I know it’s tempting to say they were just stupid apes and our superior brains drove them to extinction. But that’s not the case. They’re both smart and social creatures.

Neanderthals made sophisticated tools and made cave paintings, just like early humans. There’s evidence that they could plan ahead and maybe even talk like us. They were not stupid guys with big foreheads. Okay yeah, they did have big brow bones and big noses. So anyways what happened to them? At most there might have been only 70,000 but that number could have been a lot smaller. By dating bones, researchers think Neanderthals’ population shrank around 50,000 years ago. This left them in small, isolated groups. Some estimates think there could have been only as few as a couple thousand females of reproductive age. This was, maybe coincidentally, around the time when homo sapiens arrive on the scene. The two groups probably interbred a little bit.

1 to 2% of modern human DNA is from Neanderthals. Alright, cool so two groups mixing and mingling, what could go wrong? Well something happened around 45,000 years ago. In 5,400 years, Neanderthals vanished. There are two events that happened around the same time that may have wiped out the already weakened Neanderthals population. A volcano near Naples, Italy erupted and blanketed the surrounding areas in ash. Some researchers think this caused a "volcanic winter" in Europe. This cooling climate in Europe could have damaged ecosystems just enough to knock out the fading Neanderthals. Another idea proposed by anthropologist Pat Shipman, is that modern humans put the final nail in the Neanderthal’s coffin. No we didn’t hunt them to death. We just out competed them. She compared human’s arriving on the scene to an invasive species. Just like kudzu, a vine that’s taking over the south, out competes native species for food and resources, that’s just what humans did. Human’s advantages weren’t that many, early humans had a lower metabolic weight and used different kind of weapons, projectile rather than hand held. But this was just enough to tip the balance in our favor.

She also put forward an interesting idea, that maybe it was the domestication of dogs that gave humans the upper hand. Once humans trained dogs for hunting, it was simply too good of a team for the Neanderthals to beat. Dogs could have helped humans track down prey and even protect that carcass from other predators. Shipman calls the dynamic duo of humans and dogs, a “fatal innovation.” Most research seems to suggest that whatever killed off our Neanderthal cousins, it wasn’t a singular event. But a complex process that happened over a couple of millenia. Maybe we’ll never know. But we can sure keep trying to figure it out. Because science. Alright humans, what’s your favorite hypothesis on what killed off the Neanderthals? Let us know in the comments below! Was it bunnies? was it volcanoes? Will we ever know!? Don’t forget to hit those like and subscribe buttons! We’ve got new stuff going up every day!.