Climate Change May Have Killed off Our Closest Ancestors, Are We Next?

May 16, 2016 | Reece Alvarez

Neanderthal man and human in a museum display case
Photo credit: Sunhosch/flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Why Neanderthals went extinct is a hotly debated topic, but recent research adds support to the theory that climate change played a major role.

Approximately 40,000 years ago, anatomically modern humans were replacing their Neanderthal relatives and the reasons behind this transition are still debated today.

According to a statement by John Stewart, an associate professor in paleoecology and environmental change at Bournemouth University, "Neanderthal extinction is one of the big anthropological issues — it's the loss of the best known close relative that we've got.”

A number of intertwined theories as to what caused the Neanderthal’s downfall have been proposed in the past, ranging from inbreeding and a lack of intelligence to being wiped out by volcanic activity and climate change.

SEE ALSO: Human and Neanderthal Interbreeding Suggests Major Evolutionary Timeline Change

Why Neanderthals went extinct is a hotly debated topic, but recent research adds support to the theory that climate change played a major role. ​

A failure to adapt to a rapidly cooling climate during the last glacial period is among the leading theories as to what happened to the Neanderthals, and new research by Jamie Hodgkins, a zooarchaeologist and assistant professor in the department of anthropology at the University of Colorado, Denver, has added weight to this theory.

"Our research uncovers a pattern showing that cold, harsh environments were stressful for Neanderthals," Hodgkins said in a statement. "As the climate got colder, Neanderthals had to put more into extracting nutrients from bones. This is especially apparent in evidence that reveals Neanderthals attempted to break open even low marrow yield bones, like the small bones of the feet."

The results of Hodgkins’ analysis of the bones of large prey butchered by Neanderthals during glacial periods was recently published in the Journal of Human Evolution, and it has yielded a number of insights into the history of the Neanderthals, as professor Stewart and his team of researchers discovered in 2015.

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Studying the remains of rabbits excavated from caves in the Iberian Peninsula, Stewart found that while rabbits were a crucial part of anatomically modern humans' diet, they were relatively under-utilised by Neanderthals.

"Rabbits originated in Iberia and they are a very special kind of resource, in that they can be found in large numbers, they are relatively easy to catch and they are predictable," said Stewart. "This means that they are quite a good food source to target. The fact that the Neanderthals did not appear to do so suggests that this was a resource they did not have access to in the same way as modern humans."

According to Bournemouth University, Neanderthals are typically associated with hunting large prey over short distances in woodland settings, and their assumed inability to catch and kill such creatures was compounded by rapid changes in the environment.

"The climate was changing and the ecology was decreasing in terms of the amount of animals they were able to hunt," Stewart explained. "If Neanderthals were more tied to these large mammals, the loss of them could have driven them to extinction."

Stewart, whose research was also published in the Journal of Human Evolution, suggests that understanding how Neanderthals failed to adapt may have implications today as our own species faces the challenges of adapting to a rapidly changing climate.

"It does relate to our own situation currently, with humans now in this potentially perilous situation with climate change," said Stewart. "From a long-term ecological perspective, all species go extinct — that is an inevitability. But if we do not want it to happen sooner rather than later, we have to understand this phenomenon."

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