Why did the Neanderthals die out?

17th December 2009
Why did the Neanderthals die out? (iStock)

Asked by: Joe Adams, London

Until around 100,000 years ago, Europe was dominated by the Neanderthals. But by 28,000 years ago, the last of them had vanished from their final hold-out in Gibraltar, having apparently lost out to modern humans (Homo sapiens) arriving from Africa.

Various explanations have been suggested. A popular theory is that they gradually interbred with the new arrivals, and their genes just faded out. Studies of DNA extracted from Neanderthal fossils have so far failed to produce a definitive answer: some researchers claim the DNA is too different from that of humans to permit interbreeding, while others disagree. Another theory is that they fell victim to climate change. There’s evidence for dramatic ‘cold snaps’ around 25,000-40,000 years ago – roughly coinciding with the extinction of the Neanderthals. But some palaeontologists claim that the physical build and clothing of Neanderthals suggest they were able to cope with the conditions.

They may, however, have found themselves in a violent struggle for resources, losing out to the cunning of Homo sapiens. And of course, the real cause of their disappearance may have been some combination of all of the above.

 


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