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Climate change killed off Neanderthals, says study

(Credit: University of Northumbria in Newcastle)

Homo sapiens’ closest relatives, the Neanderthals, died out about 40,000 years ago, but the exact cause is still the subject of debate. Now, a new study suggests that climate change is a major role in their extinction than previously believed.

The evidence is there that Europe experienced stark cold and dry periods, putting a strain on the Neanderthals’ food and the ability to survive. Thanks to a group of researchers looking at stalagmites in Romania, we can proof that this is indeed the case.

“For many years we have wondered what could be the cause of their demise,” said Dr. Vasile Erse, co-author of the study and a senior lecturer at the Northumbria University, in a statement. “They were pushed over the edge by the arrival of modern humans, or were other factors involved? Our study suggests that climate change may have had an important role in the extinction of the Neanderthals.”

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Dr. Ersek and his team looked at the stalagmite rocks that gather in the caves for long stretches of time to look at the climate. Stalagmites contain rings, similar to trees, which can give an indication of how extreme weather patterns, which occur in the course of thousands of years, under the influence Neanderthals.

The study was published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences.

Neanderthals existed in Eurasia for about 350,000 years. But in the time of the last ice age and the arrival of modern humans in Europe, they became extinct.

During the cold periods of time, the team found an “almost complete absence of archaeological artifacts from the group, which suggests cooler temperatures meant less tools.

Although the Neanderthals had learned to control and manipulate fire, just like modern humans, Neanderthals did not take of fish and plants in their diet, making them less food sources.

If the temperature was colder and these animals, of course, was more scarce during the freezing cold, the Neanderthals were more sensitive to climate change.

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“For now, we had no climate records from the region where the Neanderthals lived who had the necessary age accuracy and resolution to establish a link between the time that the Neanderthals died out, and the timing of these extreme cold periods,” Dr. Ersek added. “But our findings indicate that the Neanderthal populations successively decreased during the repeated cold stadials.”

A stadial is a period of a colder climate; and, conversely, an interstadial is a period of a warmer climate.

When the temperatures began to warm again, the Neanderthals had a doomed fate, according to Dr. Ersek. “[Their smaller populations could not expand, because their habitat was also occupied by the modern man, and this facilitates a staggered expansion of modern humans in Europe.”

Follow Chris Ciaccia on Twitter @Chris_Ciaccia

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