July 29, 2011

Sheer Numbers Resulted In Neanderthals’ Downfall

The 300,000 year reign of the Neanderthals most likely came to an end because of simple numbers, as modern humans outnumbered their predecessors by a 10-to-1 margin, researchers from Cambridge University claim in a new study.

Once the hoards of homo sapiens poured into Western Europe, they overwhelmed Neanderthals, effectively making them "a minority in their own land," Guardian Science Correspondent Ian Sample wrote on Thursday. The sheer numbers of these new residents quickly ended the ancient species domination and thrust them into "competition for food, fuel and other crucial resources," he added.

The researchers, who published their findings in the journal Science, studied archaeological evidence from both Neanderthal and homo sapien sites in southwest France, Telegraph Science Correspondent Nick Collins reports.

The Cambridge scientists "noticed a sudden increase in the number and size of occupied sites, as well as relics like tools and animal food remains, which suggested modern humans lived in much larger and more integrated social groups," he said.

Collins added that the researchers also discovered that modern humans possessed "sophisticated hunting equipment, better means of storing and preserving food through the long, freezing winters, and better trade links with neighboring communities," than their counterparts.

"It was clearly this range of new technological and behavioral innovations which allowed the modern human populations to invade and survive in much larger population numbers than those of the preceding Neanderthals across the whole of the European continent," Professor Sir Paul Mellars, Professor Emeritus of Prehistory and Human Evolution at the University's Department of Archaeology, said in a statement Thursday.

"Faced with this kind of competition, the Neanderthals seem to have retreated initially into more marginal and less attractive regions of the continent and eventually--within a space of at most a few thousand years--for their populations to have declined to extinction--perhaps accelerated further by sudden climatic deterioration across the continent around 40,000 years ago," he added.

Christopher Ramsey of the University of Oxford's School of Archaeology--an expert not involved with the Cambridge study--told the Associated Press (AP) that the results were nothing new and merely provided "more quantitative evidence for what many already thought to be the case--that is that modern humans simply replaced Neanderthals by gaining higher population densities."

According to the University press release, the research, which was completed by Mellars and Ph. D. student Jennifer French, "demonstrates for the first time the massive numerical supremacy of the earliest modern human populations in western Europe, compared with those of the preceding Neanderthals, and thereby largely resolves one of the most controversial and long-running debates over the rapid decline and extinction of the enigmatic Neanderthal populations."


Image 2: Map of the migration of modern man out of Africa. Triangles represent Aurignacian (considered the first modern humans) split-base points.
Image credit: Dora Kemp, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research


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