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Scientific American - August 2009

Scientific American - August 2009

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32
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN
August 2009
 
 Neandertals
 
Twilight 
of the
HUMAN
 
EVOLUTION
© 2009 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, INC.
 
www.ScientificAmerican.com
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN
33
 
KEY CONCEPTS
 
Neandertals, our closestrelatives, ruled Europeand western Asia formore than 200,000 years.But sometime after28,000 years ago,they vanished.
Scientists have long de-bated what led to theirdisappearance. The latestextinction theories focuson climate change andsubtle differences in be-havior and biology thatmight have given modernhumans an advantageover the Neandertals.
 —
The Editors
Paleoanthropologists know more aboutNeandertals than any other extinct human.But their demise remains a mystery,one that gets curiouser and curiouser
By Kate Wong
S
ome 28,000 years ago in what is now the Brit-ish territory of Gibraltar, a group of Neander-tals eked out a living along the rocky Mediter-ranean coast. They were quite possibly the last of theirkind. Elsewhere in Europe and western Asia, Nean-dertals had disappeared thousands of years earlier, af-ter having ruled for more than 200,000 years. TheIberian Peninsula, with its comparatively mild climateand rich array of animals and plants, seems to havebeen the nal stronghold. Soon, however, the Gibral-tar population, too, would die out, leaving behindonly a smattering of their stone tools and the charredremnants of their campres.Ever since the discovery of the rst Neandertal fos-sil in 1856, scientists have debated the place of thesebygone humans on the family tree and what becameof them. For decades two competing theories havedominated the discourse. One holds that Neandertalswere an archaic variant of our own species,
Homo sa- piens ,
that evolved into or was assimilated by the an-atomically modern European population. The otherposits that the Neandertals were a separate species,
H.neanderthalensis,
that modern humans swiftly extir-pated on entering the archaic hominid’s territory.Over the past decade, however, two key ndingshave shifted the fulcrum of the debate away from thequestion of whether Neandertals and moderns madelove or war. One is that analyses of Neandertal DNAhave yet to yield the signs of interbreeding with mod-ern humans that many researchers expected to see if the two groups mingled signicantly. The other is thatimprovements in dating methods show that ratherthan disappearing immediately after the moderns in-vaded Europe, starting a little more than 40,000 yearsago, the Neandertals survived for nearly 15,000 yearsafter moderns moved in
hardly the rapid replace-ment adherents to the blitzkrieg theory envisioned.These revelations have prompted a number of re-searchers to look more carefully at other factors thatmight have led to Neandertal extinction. What they are
   K   A   Z   U   H   I   K   O   S   A   N   O
© 2009 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, INC.
 
34
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN
August 2009
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 sufciently 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.
   L   A   U   R   I   E   G   R   A   C   E   ;   S   O   U   R   C   E   F   O   R   M   A   P   :    “   R   A   P   I   D   E   C   O   L   O   G   I   C   A   L   T   U   R   N   O   V   E   R   A   N   D   I   T   S   I   M   P   A   C   T   O   N   N   E   A   N   D   E   R   T   A   L   A   N   D   O   T   H   E   R   H   U   M   A   N   P   O   P   U   L   A   T   I   O   N   S ,    ”   B   Y   C   L   I   V   E   F   I   N   L   A   Y   S   O   N   A   N   D   J   O   S   E   S .   C   A   R   R   I   O   N ,   I   N
   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 ,
   V   O   L .   2   2 ,   N   O .   4   ;   2   0   0   7
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 farner-grained picture of the climate shifts thatoccurred during a period known as oxygen iso-tope stage 3 (OIS-3). Spanning the time between
[HYPOTHESIS 1]
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 climateuctuations allowed diminished Neandertal populations sufcient 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
© 2009 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, INC.

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