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Neanderthals also suffered from climate change

Changing climatic conditions, aridity and drought may have been responsible for the extinction of the Neanderthal

Climate data analysed by a team of international scientists, including experts from the University of Cologne, provide new insights into why Neanderthals became extinct. Using isotopic variations in the carbon and oxygen of lime stalagmites from two Romanian caves, the researchers can reconstruct the climate history of Central Europe in detail for the first time. The data indicate that climate fluctuations during the last Ice Age had a significant influence on the population decline of Neanderthals.

The study ‘Impact of climate change on the transition of Neanderthals to modern humans in Europe’ has recently been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).

The climate at the beginning of the last Ice Age often changed and was marked by numerous periods of extreme cold. During these periods, which lasted from several centuries to a thousand years, temperatures dropped by up to 10 degrees Celsius. They were accompanied by drought and an increase of steppe landscapes.

The new study suggests that this may have decided the fate of the Neanderthal. The transition from Neanderthals to modern Homo sapiens in Europe took place about 45,000 to 40,000 years ago, starting along the Danube River: archaeological finds show time gaps between artefacts of Neanderthals and artefacts of modern humans found at specific excavation sites during this phase.

‘In the analysis of climate data, two periods of extreme cold around 44,000 and around 40,000 years ago particularly stand out. The first one coincided with a time gap between Neanderthal artifacts and those of modern humans in the Danube region, the second with a similar gap in present-day France’, says Michael Staubwasser, a lead author of the study. The geologist at the Cooperative Research Centre ‘Our Way to Europe’ at the Universities of Cologne, Bonn and Aachen also notes: ‘The data indicate that during these two periods of cold and drought, the Neanderthal populations declined significantly. Modern humans then settled in these largely depopulated areas.’

This suggests that the changed environmental conditions and ecological stress caused by the cold and drought periods of almost a thousand years each accelerated several depopulation and repopulation cycles in Europe. Independent evidence suggests that modern humans had better food resources in the spreading steppe. ‘Modern humans were better adapted to the conditions during the cold and drought periods in Europe, were able to survive and spread, while Neanderthals could only repopulate some of their old settlement areas during the warmer intervals’, says Staubwasser.

For a few thousand years, Neanderthals lived along the northern edge of the Danube region in geographical proximity to modern humans. Genetic studies even prove that they mixed. However, the first modern humans disappeared again only a few millennia later. After the second cold period, in which the Neanderthals disappeared, there were at least two more climate-related depopulation and repopulation cycles in Europe. This study for the first time proves a relationship between genetic changes in Europe’s ice-age population and the development of the continent’s climate at the beginning of the last Ice Age.

Media Enquiries:  
Professor Dr. Michael Staubwasser
+49 221 470-6153

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+49 221 470-2356


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