Maybe we wiped Neanderthals out after all

Or at least, that’s the conclusion of a paper which models the population changes and other factors involved.

  • New model to study hominin interactions in time-varying climate environment.
  • Neanderthals experienced rapid population decline due to competitive exclusion.
  • Interbreeding only minor contributor to Neanderthal extinction.
  • Abrupt Climate Change not major cause for demise of Neanderthals.

Of course, a model is only as good as the assumptions that go into it.  But if it holds, Neanderthals went extinct due to competition from anatomically modern humans, as we migrated into Europe.  The alternate hypotheses, assimilation from interbreeding or climate change, turn out to be minor factors.

A series of maps showing that as Homo sapien populations increase, Neanderthal ones decrease
Homo sapiens and Neanderthal population changes from the paper. Source: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0277379120302936

I’ve never thought the idea that climate change was responsible made much sense.  The Neanderthals survived for hundreds of thousands of years through a wide variety of climate change events before we showed up.

The assimilation hypothesis in recent years seemed compelling, and there’s still reasons to think there was at least some assimilation, not the least that all non-Africans have 1-4% Neanderthal DNA.  But if the model is correct, it wasn’t the primary reason why they disappeared as a population.

Hank Campbell points out that it’s still possible we transmitted some disease(s) to them, similar to what happened when Europeans first arrived in the Americas and smallpox devastated native American populations.  But resource competition, again according to the model, seems more likely.

That said, I’ll be interested to see what public anthropologists such as John Hawks make of this.

5 thoughts on “Maybe we wiped Neanderthals out after all

  1. As you know I had already come to this conclusion but thanks for bring this paper to my attention.

    But let’s be clear. When we say “resource competition”, we really are saying that, if they had hunting grounds, water, or any other scarce item and they were in our way, they weren’t in our way for long. I suspect they lived in smaller groups than humans which meant they were outnumbered in addition to likely have technological disadvantages. If they weren’t all killed or enslaved, whoever of them remained got squeezed into increasingly marginal areas.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I thought you’d find this one interesting.

      I think the scientists use “resource competition” to be epistemically cautious. And remember that population densities during this time were very low. They wouldn’t necessarily have physically been in each other’s way. But they would have been hunting against the same animal populations.

      Like

    1. Paul,

      You could make an argument that the last 100K years of civilization (meant in the broadest sense) might be an effort at improving the species if not creating a new one. The lever has been the interaction between technology and biology. It is still a work in progress without a conclusion and no clear vision to where it is going.

      Like

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