Strength in numbers

Jul 28, 2011

New research sheds light on why, after 300,000 years of domination, European Neanderthals abruptly disappeared. Researchers from the University of Cambridge have discovered that modern humans coming from Africa swarmed the region, arriving with over ten times the population as the Neanderthal inhabitants.

The reasons for the relatively sudden disappearance of the European Neanderthal populations across the continent around 40,000 years ago has for long remained one of the great mysteries of human evolution. After 300 of living, and evidently flourishing, in the cold, sub–glacial environments of central and western Europe, they were rapidly replaced over all areas of the continent by new, anatomically and genetically 'modern' (i.e. Homo sapiens) populations who had originated and evolved in the vastly different tropical environments of Africa.

The most plausible answer to this long-debated question has now been published in the journal Science by two researchers from the Department of Archaeology at Cambridge – Professor Sir Paul Mellars, Professor Emeritus of Prehistory and Human Evolution, and Jennifer French, a second-year PhD student.

By conducting a detailed statistical analysis of the archaeological evidence from the classic 'Perigord' region of southwestern France, which contains the largest concentration of Neanderthal and early modern human sites in Europe, they have found clear evidence that the earliest modern human populations penetrated the region in at least ten times larger numbers than those of the local Neanderthal populations already established in the same regions. This is reflected in a sharp increase in the total number of occupied sites, much higher densities of occupation residues (i.e. stone tools and animal food remains) in the sites, and bigger areas of occupation in the sites, revealing the formation of much larger and apparently more socially integrated social groupings.

Faced with this dramatic increase in the incoming modern human population, the capacity of the local Neanderthal groups to compete for the same range of living sites, the same range of animal food supplies (principally reindeer, horse, bison and red deer), and the same scarce fuel supplies to tide the groups over the extremely harsh glacial winters, would have been massively undermined. Additionally, almost inevitably, repeated conflicts or confrontations between the two populations would arise for occupation of the most attractive locations and richest food supplies, in which the increased numbers and more highly coordinated activities of the modern human groups would ensure their success over the Neanderthal groups.

The archaeological evidence also strongly suggests that the incoming modern groups possessed superior hunting technologies and equipment (e.g. more effective and long-range hunting spears), and probably more efficient procedures for processing and storing food supplies over the prolonged and exceptionally cold glacial winters. They also appear to have had more wide-ranging social contacts with adjacent human groups to allow for trade and exchange of essential food supplies in times of food scarcity.

Whether the incoming modern human groups also possessed more highly developed brains and associated mental capacities than the remains at present a matter of intense debate. But the sudden appearance of a wide range of complex and sophisticated art forms (including cave paintings), the large-scale production of elaborate decorative items (such as perforated stone and ivory beads, and imported sea shells), and clearly 'symbolic' systems of markings on bone and ivory tools – all entirely lacking among the preceding Neanderthals – strongly point to more elaborate systems of social communications among the modern groups, probably accompanied by more advanced and complex forms of language.

All of these new and more complex behavioural patterns can be shown to have developed first among the ancestral African Homo sapiens populations, at least 20,0000 to 30,000 years before their dispersal from , and progressive colonisation (and replacement of earlier populations) across all regions of Europe and Asia from around 60,000 years onwards.

If, as the latest genetic evidence strongly suggests, the African Homo sapiens and European Neanderthal populations had been evolving separately for at least half a million years, then the emergence of some significant contrasts in the mental capacities of the two lineages would not be a particularly surprising development, in evolutionary terms.

Professor Sir Paul Mellars, Professor Emeritus of Prehistory and at the Department of Archaeology, said: "In any event, it was clearly this range of new technological and behavioural innovations which allowed the modern human populations to invade and survive in much larger numbers than those of the preceding Neanderthals across the whole of the European continent. 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 around 40,000 years ago."

Whatever the precise cultural, behavioural and intellectual contrasts between the Neanderthals and intrusive modern human populations, this new study published in Science demonstrates for the first time the massive numerical supremacy of the earliest 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.

Explore further: New hadrosaur noses into spotlight

Related Stories

Neanderthals more advanced than previously thought

Sep 21, 2010

For decades scientists believed Neanderthals developed `modern' tools and ornaments solely through contact with Homo sapiens, but new research from the University of Colorado Denver now shows these sturdy ...

Neanderthal faces were not adapted to cold

Jan 17, 2011

( -- New research into Neanderthal skulls suggests that facial features believed for over a century to be adaptations to extreme cold are unlikely to have evolved in response to glacial periods ...

3D Neanderthal comes to a screen near you

Mar 01, 2011

Ever wondered what Neanderthals looked like? Or how they walked? Well wonder no more with the Natural History Museum website’s new augmented reality (AR) Neanderthal.

Recommended for you

New hadrosaur noses into spotlight

Sep 19, 2014

Call it the Jimmy Durante of dinosaurs – a newly discovered hadrosaur with a truly distinctive nasal profile. The new dinosaur, named Rhinorex condrupus by paleontologists from North Carolina State Univer ...

Militants threaten ancient sites in Iraq, Syria

Sep 19, 2014

For more than 5,000 years, numerous civilizations have left their mark on upper Mesopotamia—from Assyrians and Akkadians to Babylonians and Romans. Their ancient, buried cities, palaces and temples packed ...

New branch added to European family tree

Sep 17, 2014

The setting: Europe, about 7,500 years ago. Agriculture was sweeping in from the Near East, bringing early farmers into contact with hunter-gatherers who had already been living in Europe for tens of thousands ...

User comments : 16

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (3) Jul 28, 2011
And on the same day, we have an article on physorg entitled "World population to surpass 7 billion in 2011". Ironic and appropriate.
5 / 5 (8) Jul 28, 2011
So basically what the article is trying to express is that mass (in modern cases illegal) immigration is dire for the existing population if the existing population has lower numbers and/or lower rate of reproduction.
5 / 5 (1) Jul 28, 2011
Wouldn't competition in "extremely harsh glacial winters" have favored the Neanderthals, at least at the beginning? The authors seem to be saying that if a group decided to go live in the north pole, they somehow would do better than the tribes that have been living there for 1000's of years. Hard to believe. Although difficult to prove, how about diseases that modern humans brought with them and could have proven fatal to the Neanderthal?
not rated yet Jul 28, 2011
Wouldn't competition in "extremely harsh glacial winters" have favored the Neanderthals

There's always technology in farming and husbandry that gave the edge to the African Middle east ancestors.
5 / 5 (1) Jul 28, 2011
Farming 30 000 years ago?Are you serious ?

I think that neandertals indeed were much better adapted for cold than the modern humans, 500 000 years they were out of Africa already so it is much more than enough to be very well adapted, the fact that they were replaced I think is not the numbers, they were not organized in any way just small groups left Africa, just tribes, they replaced neanderthals just because as the article says the gap in the evolution(the brain and from there the culture, also the body) was just too big, and they kicked the Neanderthals in their own ground.
5 / 5 (3) Jul 28, 2011
I'd think it would be possible that in some areas the populations mixed and, due to the numbers and potential lower breeding rates, Neanderthals were just overwhelmed genetically. I suppose we would find some evidence of this in the fossil record if it were true.

If only we would stumble upon the captain's bath tub and put the whole missing link nonsense to rest.
5 / 5 (2) Jul 28, 2011
...the captain's bath tub...

Thank you!

Unfortunately, I think we also inherited their fiscal policies, and are now about to burn down all the forests, so to speak...
3 / 5 (2) Jul 28, 2011's happening the guys that did it the last time around, how ironic!
5 / 5 (1) Jul 28, 2011
You were told to believe in plausibility.

The most plausible answer to this long-debated question has now been published in the journal Science by two researchers from the Department of Archaeology at Cambridge Professor Sir Paul Mellars, Professor Emeritus of Prehistory and Human Evolution, and Jennifer French, a second-year PhD student.

Obey. Your displays of incredulity simply invoke your extinction.
Noble are your arms against a sea of plausibility.
Now perish.

If you want to debate science go to Physorg.
Who do you think you are posting here?
5 / 5 (1) Jul 28, 2011
Since about 3% of European ancestors are Neanderthals, the extinction was not as great as originally suggested. If they were outnumbered 10 to 1 that means that 30% of Neanderthals contributed to offspring. And that 10:1 ratio could be pretty rough. So the proportion of Neanderthals not going extinct may be even higher.
not rated yet Jul 29, 2011
".scientists have debated whether Neanderthals should be classified as Homo neanderthalensis or "Homo sapiens neanderthalensis", the latter placing Neanderthals as a subspecies of Homo sapiens. Some morphological studies support that Homo neanderthalensis is a separate species and not a subspecies. Others, for example University of Cambridge Professor Paul Mellars, say "no evidence has been found of cultural interaction" and evidence from mitochondrial DNA studies have been interpreted as evidence Neanderthals were not a subspecies of H. sapiens, though more recent genomic evidence showed otherwise. And as a result of strong evidence of interbreeding between the two races in order to give fertile offsprings, some scientists are being inclined more and more to classify the Neanderthal as a subspecies of H. sapiens, as by definition in biology, two different species can not produce fertile offsprings."

"Since about 3% of European ancestors are Neanderthals" - says Graeme.

And who else?
not rated yet Jul 29, 2011
I think being bred out still counts as extinction. It is curious though that after however many years of seperate evolution, they were able to reproduce. Similar to the Polar and Grizzly bears reproducing in Canada I suppose. Does anyone know how far apart species have to be before they're unable to reproduce?
3.7 / 5 (3) Jul 29, 2011
" far apart...before...unable to reproduce?"
Outside the length of an erect penis?
Dunno, just guessing.
5 / 5 (4) Jul 29, 2011
I, for one, know for sure that Neanderthals did not go extinct. I have my present and former bosses, my in-laws, and the bully down the street to prove that they are alive and doing well.
3.7 / 5 (3) Jul 30, 2011
I, for one, know for sure that Neanderthals did not go extinct. I have my present and former bosses, my in-laws, and the bully down the street to prove that they are alive and doing well.

It's the other way round. The Neanderthals got so depressed by all those selfish and bullying homo sapiens that they wanted to spare their descent the pain of living among them.
3 / 5 (2) Aug 01, 2011
So the neanderthals were victim of the most effective weapon to wipe out other societes - mass immigration. Not even so surprising to me.