In a world where climate change is an overused term, usually designated to all things to go wrong on our planet, let’s go back almost 40,000 years ago and see how freezing weather led to the extinction of The Neanderthals.
“The Neanderthals were the human species closest to ours and lived in Eurasia for some 350,000 years. However, around 40,000 years ago — during the last Ice Age and shortly after the arrival of anatomically modern humans in Europe — they became extinct,” explains the co-author of the study and researcher at Northumbria University, Dr. Vasile Ersek.
The new study was published in the journal Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, and the authors explain that ancient humans went extinct partly because of the cold climate:
“For many years we have wondered what could have caused their demise. Were they pushed ‘over the edge’ by the arrival of modern humans, or were other factors involved? Our study suggests that climate change may have had an important role in the Neanderthal extinction.”
Although skilled hunters and good with controlling fire, Neanderthals had a problem: their diet wasn’t too diverse, like modern humans’ diet.
Neanderthals lived mainly on meat from the animals they hunted, and in cold periods, it would become scarce. This was what made Neanderthals vulnerable to the climate change.
Modern humans ate fish and plants alongside meat, allowing them to survive with a supplemented food intake.
Evidence in the Stalagmite And (Lack of) Artifacts
But how did Dr. Ersek and his colleagues come to this conclusion? They went to examine stalagmites in caves in the Carpathian Mountains. The stalagmites grow in layers year after year, and their chemical composition is altered by changes in temperatures, explained Dr. Ersek:
“The layers therefore preserve a natural archive of climate change over many thousands of years.”
And indeed, the layers in the Carpathian stalagmites showed that between 44,000 and 40,000 years ago, the weather in Europe was very cold and dry. The temperatures gradually cooled and remained like that for millennia before an abrupt warming.
After comparing their findings with archaeological records of Neanderthal artifacts, they discovered that the cold periods had an absence of Neanderthal tools, indicating that their population was severely reduced during the cold periods. The authors concluded that:
“Modern humans survived these cold stadial periods because they were better adapted to their environment than the Neanderthals.”
Andre Blair s is the lead editor for Advocator.ca. He holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Toronto, and a Master of Science in Public Health (M.S.P.H.) from the School of Public Health, Department of Health Administration, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Andre specializes in environmental health, but writes on a variety of issues.