Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis… or, humans and Neanderthals… started to diverge from a common ancestor, Homo erectus, about 700,000 years ago. Then our species completely branched off about 300,000 years ago.
They lived in Eurasia, from about Spain to western Siberia, and while the date of their extinction is debated, it’s believed that they died out somewhere between 30,000 to 42,000 years ago. Why they went extinct is one of the biggest mysteries in evolutionary science. So why did our ancestral cousins die out?
10. We Were Better Hunters
The Neanderthals went extinct not long after humans migrated out of Africa into Eurasia. Since the Neanderthals ruled Europe for so long before the arrival of humans, and suddenly died off after coming into contact with them, it has led researchers to believe that humans were somehow responsible, at least in part, for the extinction.
One theory as to how humans drove Neanderthals to extinction was because we were better hunters. This became a problem because, with only a limited amount of food, there would have been competition for it. Since we’re here and they aren’t, it would suggest that we were better hunters and got most of the food. This would have caused the Neanderthal population to plummet, while the human population would have gone up.
9. Humans Violently Replaced Them
Throughout history, groups of humans have had a tendency to kill, enslave, or conquer other groups of people who are different from them. Why would prehistoric humans be any different when they came into contact with the Neanderthals?
When humans migrated out of Africa, they may have been more aggressive and more violent than the Neanderthals because that was advantageous to their hunting style. Meanwhile, it’s believed that the Neanderthals were less violent because they didn’t hunt in the same way. Instead of hunting and chasing down big animals, to get their protein they ate insects.
If they were more peaceful by nature, the Neanderthals would have been unable to fight off the growing population of violent human brutes who invaded their territory.
8. Volcanic Eruption
An event that can have profound effects on the Earth is the eruption of a large volcano. When a volcano erupts, millions of cubic tons of ash and debris can be put into the atmosphere and this alters the climate of the Earth by making it cooler, because less sun reaches the Earth.
Well 39,000 years ago, around the same time that the Neanderthals started to go extinct, the Campi Flegrei volcano west of Naples, Italy had a massive eruption. It was the biggest eruption in Europe in 200,000 years and 60 cubic miles of ash was pumped into the atmosphere.
This would have had devastating effects on the Neanderthals. The sun would have been blotted out for months, if not years. This would have cooled temperatures in Europe and it would have brought acid rain. These types of conditions would have made the environment inhospitable to the Neanderthals, causing them to die out. As the ash dispersed and the Neanderthals were dying off, humans would have moved into Europe with little resistance.
7. Humans Hunted With Wolves
Around the time that the Neanderthals went extinct, there were three top predators competing for food in Europe: the Neanderthals, humans, and wolves. According to anthropologist Pat Shipman of Pennsylvania State University an alliance between the wolves and the humans led to the extinction of the Neanderthals. His theory is that humans were able to tame and breed wolves. These wolf-dogs would have been used to get large animals, like mammoths, cornered so humans could finish them off. Cornering the animal was the most dangerous part of the hunt.
Also, when humans would bring down the animals and started to cut it apart, they would had to fight off scavengers, but the wolves would have been able sense scavengers from longer distances and they would have scared them off. Then the humans would feed the wolves and this would have been a win-win situation for the two top predators.
Meanwhile, there is no evidence that the Neanderthals used wolves to hunt. Without their help, prey would have been more dangerous to hunt and they would have to exert more energy while hunting, meaning they needed more food to sustain themselves. This would have made it hard for the Neanderthal population to maintain and grow their population, especially when two of their competitors teamed up to fight for the same resources that they needed.
6. Humans Had More Culture
According to a mathematical model from Stanford University, the reason that humans are still around and the Neanderthals aren’t is that humans had a high level of culture. By having a stronger culture, they would have been able to hunt and gather food over a larger area than the Neanderthals. This culture would have also led to better tool-making skills, which would allow them to make better weapons. For example, an ax would have been an incredibly useful tool and a devastating weapon.
According to their model, a small population of humans with a high level of culture could have overwhelmed a large population of Neanderthals who were less cultured.
5. The Division of Labor
The Neanderthals didn’t have the most complex diet. They were known to hunt big game animals, which was a dangerous task. They also hunted differently than humans. Neanderthal men, women, and juveniles would get involved with the hunt. Humans, on the other hand, developed tasks based on gender and age. This division of labor allowed them to collect a variety of different foods, and then they could process and cook it.
Being able to eat a variety of cooked food would have given humans an evolutionary edge in two ways. The first is that there would been more sources for food. Secondly, the more complex diet of cooked food not only allowed humans to survive, but it also helped in the evolution of the human brain and helped make it what it is today.
4. Neanderthals Had Smaller Frontal Lobes
One of the prevailing misconceptions surrounding the Neanderthals is that we were smarter than them. However, researchers believe their brains were just as big as humans’, but they were built differently. Neanderthal brains were designed to control their large bodies and to track movement. Humans had larger frontal lobes, which is the region of the brain where decision-making, social behavior, creativity, and abstract thought are controlled. In the long run, these qualities probably gave us an evolutionary edge compared the Neanderthals.
For example, by using abstract thought, humans realized that by processing food, like smashing up cooked yams, it would have saved energy during the eating process because you need less energy to chew your food. This is especially important when raising children. Secondly, the frontal lobe would have been helpful in spreading new technology quickly. With a larger frontal lobe it would have been easier for humans to teach each other, and to learn. Also, thanks to the large frontal lobe, early humans saw the benefit in forming large social groups, and these large groups would have made technology easier to spread across the species.
By saving energy on everyday tasks like eating, and utilizing technology, it would have given us an evolutionary edge that allowed us to survive while the Neanderthals went extinct.
3. The Weather Change Changed Their Habitat
An argument against the replacement theory is that humans had nothing to do with the extinction of the Neanderthals. After all, humans first left Africa about 100,000 years ago and moved into the Middle East, and then about 60,000 years ago they made it to Australia. However, humans only migrated into Europe, the Neanderthal’s homeland, 45,000 years ago. The question is, why did humans travel all the way down to Australia before getting to Europe, which is essentially around the corner from the Middle East? This suggests that humans may have only been able to move in when the Neanderthals were already dying off.
So why were they dying off? Well, drastic weather change could have been the culprit. When the Neanderthals went extinct, the last Ice Age was coming to an end and Eurasia was experiencing unstable weather patterns which dramatically changed the landscape. For example, in Italy around the time the Neanderthals went extinct, forests morphed into open plains over the span of 100 years. The Neanderthal body simply couldn’t evolve fast enough to survive in the new landscape.
The problem was that the Neanderthals hunted in the forest. They used the trees as cover and then they clubbed or stabbed prey. Their bodies simply weren’t built to sneak up on fast moving and dangerous game animals in the newly developed open plains.
Humans, on the other hand, were used to grasslands and open fields because that was the terrain in Africa where humans evolved and strived. With the Neanderthal population dwindling and the landscape becoming advantageous to humans’ skills, our ancestors simply moved into the area.
2. Disease Wiped Them Out
Why the Neanderthals lived for tens of thousands of years in Eurasia, but died out about 1,000 to 5,000 years after coming into contact with humans, is one of the most debated topics in anthropology. The obvious conclusion is that humans had something to do with the extinction, but no one is sure how or why humans caused it.
One theory is that when the Neanderthals moved out of Africa and settled in Eurasia, their immune system developed to deal with that environment. However, when humans migrated out of Africa, they brought African pathogens with them and these caused diseases like tuberculosis, herpes, tapeworms, and stomach ulcers. The Neanderthals’ immune systems simply couldn’t deal with the diseases and they went extinct. Yes, you read that right. Humans gave the Neanderthals herpes and it killed them.
Evidence to back this up is that this is what happened when Europeans came to the Americas starting in 1492. When they came, they brought diseases like smallpox and malaria, and this was devastating to people in the Americas. Since the Native Americans’ immune systems weren’t developed to combat the diseases, it’s estimated that 20 million Native Americans were killed in the years following contact with the Europeans, which was nearly 95 percent of the population in the Americas.
1. They Assimilated With Humans
One theory surrounding the fate of the Neanderthals is that there was no death blow. They simply assimilated with humans by interbreeding. For any of the reasons listed in the other entries on this list, or quite possibly because of a combination of them, the population of Neanderthals became drastically low. However, instead of all of them dying off, the species was just absorbed by the much bigger human population.
Evidence to back this up is that if you were born outside of Africa, 1.5 to 2.1 percent of your DNA is Neanderthal in origin. However, what’s interesting is that it isn’t the same genes in everyone. For example, if you have 2% Neanderthal DNA and your next door neighbor has 2% Neanderthal DNA, you may not share the same 2%. Researchers think that 20 percent of the Neanderthal genome is still found within humans. So they never exactly went extinct; instead, their DNA just became part of the modern human genome.