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How Neanderthals Became Extinct

Having inhabited Europe for over 200,000 years, Neanderthals became extinct about 35,000 years ago, and the reasons behind their disappearance have been the source of considerable debate.
The scientific community has long been split between those blaming Neanderthals' inability to cope with dramatic climatic change– in particular a cold period about 39,000 years ago called Heinrich Event 4 (H4)–and those who consider competition with anatomically modern humans (AMH) as a more likely cause. Yet a recent study1 by a multidisciplinary Franco-American research team, featuring experts in archeology, ecology, and paleoclimatology should put the debate to rest. It demonstrates that competitive exclusion, not climate change, is indeed responsible for Neanderthal extinction.
Using an algorithm called GARP, initially developed to predict the impact of climate change on biodiversity, the team showed that Neanderthals and AMH were exploiting almost identical ecological niches before and during the cold period. “The algorithm uses a host of data–carbon dating, geographic information, and climate history across Europe–and matches it to the paleoenvironmental features shared by known archeological sites (belonging to either Neanderthals or AMH) to predict where these populations might have lived at any given time,” explains archeologist William Banks from the PACEA laboratory,2 who led the research.
According to GARP's calculations, Neanderthals should have continued to occupy the majority of Europe during Greenland Interstadial 8 (GI8), the warmer period that followed H4. “But when we look at the actual sites dated to GI8, we see that the regions occupied by Neanderthals had shrunk to southern Spain,” Banks adds. The algorithm results also showed that AMH' niche had expanded during GI8, thus making competition between the two groups–and AMH' superior adaptation–the likely drivers behind Neanderthal extinction.
While several past studies have attempted to gauge the impact of climate change on human populations, the multidisciplinary approach made possible by GARP constitutes a significant breakthrough. As stressed by Francesco d'Errico, co-author of the study, “GARP combines archeological, chronological, and climatic data in a unique computational architecture.”

Fabien Bulliard

Notes :

1. W. E. Banks et al., “Neanderthal extinction by competitive exclusion.” PLoS ONE, 2008. 3(12): e3972.
2. De la Préhistoire à l'Actuel: Culture, Environnement et Anthropologie (CNRS / Université Bordeaux-I).

Contacts :

PACEA, Bordeaux.
William Banks
Federico d'Errico


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