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How Neanderthals chilled out.

How Neanderthals chilled out

The evolutionary role of Neanderthals remains a controversial topic among anthropologists. Some assert that anatomically modern humans originated in Africa and drove the hapless Neanderthals to extinction about 35,000 years ago, while others argue the two groups were closely related subspecies of Homo sapiens that interbred and evolved in Asia as well as in Africa.

The former argument probably comes closer to the truth, but a cooling climate and ecological shifts--and not the oft-alleged intellectual superiority of anatomically modern humans -- led to the Neanderthals' downfall, contends anthropologist John J. Shea of Harvard University in the spring ANTHROQUEST.

The stone artifacts used by Neanderthals at Middle Eastern sites are much the same as those crafted at the same time by anatomically modern humans living nearby, Shea reports. Thus, he concludes, Neanderthals show no archaeological signs of a deficient intellect. Their bodies, however, combined features well suited to moving with speed and power "far beyond the aspirations of even the best Olympic athletes," Shea maintains. In fact, the anatomical evidence suggests Neanderthals were a separate species, he says.

But climatic conditions conspired against them. Neanderthals first appeared in Europe between 130,000 and 90,000 years ago, when that region enjoyed mild temperatures and was blanketed by forests, Shea notes. These muscular hominids apparently competed among themselves for access to dense stands of fruits, nuts and other plant foods. The need to defend patches of plant food may have kept them from living in large groups or avidly pursuing seasonal, highly mobile game.

Around 70,000 years ago, the European climate cooled during the early stages of glacial advancement from the north. Neanderthal fossils from shortly thereafter have been found in the Middle East. Some Neanderthals may have migrated to the Middle East, where anatomically modern humans already lived, Shea says. At first, Neanderthals probably sought out lowland regions containing familiar stands of fruit- and nut-bearing trees, forcing the physically weaker modern-type humans to concentrate on hunting large, mobile herds of antelope and other game in nearby stretches of arid savanna.

Increasing glacial ice volume between 64,000 and 32,000 years ago caused an expansion of savannas in the Middle East and produced extensive pine forests and tundra in Europe. Highly mobile game animals and widely dispersed seasonal plants flourish in these environments, Shea says. In the Middle East, modern humans had a tremendous advantage in obtaining food and reproducing. The demise of Neanderthals in that "boundary region" may then have spread to other regions, culminating in their extinction, Shea proposes.
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Title Annotation:what caused the extinction of the Neanderthals
Publication:Science News
Date:Mar 24, 1990
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