roughly 65,000 and 25,000 years ago, OIS-3began with moderate conditions and culminatedwith the ice sheets blanketing northern Europe.Considering that Neandertals were the onlyhominids in Europe at the beginning of OIS-3and moderns were the only ones there by the endof it, experts have wondered whether the plum-meting temperatures might have caused the Ne-andertals to perish, perhaps because they couldnot nd enough food or keep sufciently warm.Yet arguing for that scenario has proved trickyfor one essential reason: Neandertals had facedglacial conditions before and persevered.In fact, numerous aspects of Neandertal biol-ogy and behavior indicate that they were wellsuited to the cold. Their barrel chests and stockylimbs would have conserved body heat, althoughthey would have additionally needed clothingfashioned from animal pelts to stave off the chill.And their brawny build seems to have beenadapted to their ambush-style hunting of large,relatively solitary mammals
such as woollyrhinoceroses
that roamed northern and centralEurope during the cold snaps. (Other distinctiveNeandertal features, such as the form of theprominent brow, may have been adaptively neu-tral traits that became established through ge-netic drift, rather than selection.)But the isotope data reveal that far from pro-gressing steadily from mild to frigid, the climatebecame increasingly unstable heading into thelast glacial maximum, swinging severely andabruptly. With that ux came profound ecologi-cal change: forests gave way to treeless grass-land; reindeer replaced certain kinds of rhinoc-eroses. So rapid were these oscillations that overthe course of an individual’s lifetime, all theplants and animals that a person had grown upwith could vanish and be replaced with unfa-miliar ora and fauna. And then, just as quick-ly, the environment could change back again.It is this seesawing of environmental condi-tions
not necessarily the cold, per se
thatgradually pushed Neandertal populations to thepoint of no return, according to scenarios pos-ited by such experts as evolutionary ecologistClive Finlayson of the Gibraltar Museum, whodirects the excavations at several cave sites inGibraltar. These shifts would have demandedthat Neandertals adopt a new way of life in veryshort order. For example, the replacement of wooded areas with open grassland would haveleft ambush hunters without any trees to hidebehind, he says. To survive, the Neandertalswould have had to alter the way they hunted.
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T R E N D S I N E C O L O G Y A N D E V O L U T I O N ,
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nding suggests that the answer involves a com-plicated interplay of stresses.
A World in Flux
One of the most informative new lines of evi-dence bearing on why the Neandertals died outis paleoclimate data. Scholars have known forsome time that Neandertals experienced bothglacial conditions and milder interglacial condi-tions during their long reign. In recent years, how-ever, analyses of isotopes trapped in primevalice, ocean sediments and pollen retrieved fromsuch locales as Greenland, Venezuela and Italyhave enabled investigators to reconstruct a farner-grained picture of the climate shifts thatoccurred during a period known as oxygen iso-tope stage 3 (OIS-3). Spanning the time between
Did Climate ChangeDoom the Neandertals?
Starting perhaps around 55,000 years ago, climate in Eurasia began to swing wildly from frigidto mild and back again in the span of decades. During the cold snaps, ice sheets advanced andtreeless tundra replaced wooded environments across much of the Neandertals’ range. Shiftsin the available prey animals accompanied these changes. Wide spacing between past climateuctuations allowed diminished Neandertal populations sufcient time to bounce back andadapt to the new conditions.This time, however, the rapidity of the changes may have made recovery impossible. By 30,000years ago only a few pockets of Neandertals survived, hanging on in the Iberian Peninsula, with itscomparatively mild climate and rich resources. These groups were too small and fragmented tosustain themselves, however, and eventually they disappeared. The map below shows conditionsassociated with the last glacial maximum, some 20,000
years ago, which providean approximation of the extreme conditions Neandertals probably enduredtoward the end of their reign.
Figueira BravaZafarrayaGibraltar (Gorham’sCave and others)
Tundra (steppic, alpine, arctic)Steppe, savanna, woodlandIce sheet and/or glaciated landand land above 1,000 metersDesertSeas and lakes (somedammed by ice sheets)Extent of Neandertal rangeLast Neandertal sites
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