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Industrial revolution sealed Neanderthals’ fate

Industrial revolution sealed Neanderthals’ fate

New Scientist

Image: erix!

Forget peaceful interbreeding: a new analysis of archaeological sites in south-west France has resurrected the idea that it was good old-fashioned competition that led to the demise of the European Neanderthals in the face of modern humans.

Since a recent analysis of the Neanderthal genome revealed the first clear evidence that our extinct cousins interbred with modern humans, researchers from a number of academic fields have seized on this nugget of information to formulate new – and less brutal – hypotheses for the Neanderthals’ fate.

For instance, immunologists suggest modern humans could survive in Neanderthal territory only because they bred with the locals and so got the genes they needed to withstand indigenous diseases. Mathematicians, meanwhile, have proposed that some Neanderthal populations disappeared not because of fierce competition with a superior species but because ofsimple random gene mixing – and a slice of bad luck.

But these hypotheses forget a crucial point, says Paul Mellars at the University of Cambridge. “There’s some evidence that Neanderthals and modern humans interbred, but that most likely happened 100,000 years ago, probably in the Near East,” he says. “Modern humans swept into Europe much later – about 40,000 years ago – and there’s no evidence for interbreeding then.”

With Jennifer French, also at Cambridge, Mellars has formulated a new hypothesis for the disappearance of Homo neanderthalensis in Europe at this later time. Read more on…