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A new study presented at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco refutes a previous theory that Neanderthals became extinct due to a massive volcanic eruption about 40,000 years ago.
Scientific debate regarding the demise of the Neanderthals has been ongoing for decades with many experts proposing factors such as climate change, competition for resources, lack of intelligence (disproven), or being killed off by rival humans, as possible causes behind the extinction of the Neanderthals around 35,000 – 40,000 years ago.
According to Live Science , some scientists also theorized that the volcanic eruption, known as the Campanian Ignimbrite super-eruption, which took place near modern-day Naples in Italy some 40,000 years ago, covered the area in lava and ash and lowered temperatures throughout Europe, causing the final demise of the Neanderthals.
Reconstruction of a Neanderthal family taking shelter in a cave
A new study challenges this perspective, showing that not only were Neanderthal populations in decline or extinct in areas of Europe prior to the eruption, but the eruption resulted in a modest temperature change that was still survivable.
Benjamin Black, a geologist at the University of California at Berkeley, and colleagues, used existing data on rocks from the eruption and combined those with climate models. “Their new model predicted how sulfur — which absorbs and scatters sunlight and can therefore cool the climate — was carried through the atmosphere over Europe after the eruption,” writes Live Science.
The results showed that the temperature would have declined by at most 9 to 18 degrees Fahrenheit (5 to 10 degrees Celsius), which was within range of what the Neanderthals would have routinely experienced, and could therefore not account for their demise.
"Neanderthal decline started well before the eruption, so if there were just a few scattered populations that were hanging on at the brink, it's hard to say what might have pushed them over the edge," Black told Live Science.
While the latest study suggests that a volcanic eruption does not account for the disappearance of the Neanderthals, it does leave open the question as to what did cause their final demise.
Scientists once held the view that Neanderthals died out because they were mentally, technologically and culturally inferior to the Homo sapiens and unable to compete for limited resources. However, numerous studies in recent years have consistently disproven this perspective. [See ‘ Top Ten Myths about Neanderthals’ ]
A study conducted earlier this year , for example, examined archaeological evidence dating back 200,000 years and found that Neanderthals made effective tools and weapons, wore ornaments such as eagle claws, used ochre, ate plants and fish as well as big game, used fire to produce pitch from tree bark, and created organized living spaces in their caves. In many cases this was happening before the arrival of modern humans, so the behaviors could not have been copied from them. This demonstrates that the Neanderthals were not inferior to early humans in what they could achieve.
The study authors concluded that “Neanderthals did not go extinct, even though their distinctive morphology did disappear.” Instead the Neanderthals were assimilated within the expanding human population. This is evidenced by the fact that some human-like characteristics have been found in late Neanderthal fossils, and conversely, Neanderthal features have been seen in early specimens of modern humans in Europe. In addition, Neanderthal genes have been found in modern human DNA and has been found to make up between 1% and 4% of the DNA of people outside Africa. Other research has found that the genomes of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals are 99.84 percent genetically identical , and have fewer than 100 proteins that differ in their amino acid sequence.
Featured image: A volcanic eruption. Source: BigStockPhoto