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Scientists reveal why the Neanderthals went extinct

Neanderthal man (photo: Paul Hudson)The Neanderthals were a species of human that lived in Europe at the time when our ancestors, Homo sapiens, arrived there from Africa, around 45,000 years ago. The Neanderthals died out approximately 5000 years later, but no one knows exactly why. Scientists have long thought that Homo sapiens—modern humans—were likely to have been responsible in some way, either as a result of violent conquest, or simply by taking more of the resources to enable their survival in the wild, through superior numbers or superior brain power. Now a recent study, led by scientist Krist Vaesen at the Eindhoven University of Technology, Netherlands, has found that Neanderthals may have gone extinct with no involvement by modern humans at all, but simply through bad luck. Their numbers—between 10,000 and 70,000 individuals—were just too small for them to survive in the long term.


Map showing Neanderthals and Homo sapiens (Berria)This map (above) shows the areas inhabited by Neanderthals (in green) after modern humans (coloured blue) travelled north out of Africa and settled in both Europe and Asia. The locations of major archaeological sites for each group (squares for Neanderthals and blue spots for modern humans) are also shown.

Pygmy hunter-gatherers in Africa today (JMGRACIA100)
The researchers used population modelling (based on the way hunter-gatherer communities live today) to plot the changing size of Neanderthal populations over 10,000 years, and to see whether they may have died out without competition from modern humans. Three factors were taken into account: inbreeding (breeding with close relatives, a practice that produces fewer and less healthy offspring), the so-called "Allee effects" (where numbers are too few for people to form breeding couples, raise the group’s children, to make up a big enough hunting party etc.); and natural rise and fall in births, deaths and the proportion of females to males.

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