Twilight of the Neandertals [Preview]

Paleoanthropologists know more about Neandertals than any other extinct human. But their demise remains a mystery, one that gets curiouser and curiouser

In Brief

  • Neandertals, our closest relatives, ruled Europe and western Asia for more than 200,000 years. But sometime after 28,000 years ago, they vanished.
  • Scientists have long debated what led to their disappearance. The latest extinction theories focus on climate change and subtle differences in behavior and biology that might have given modern humans an advantage over the Neandertals.

Some 28,000 years ago in what is now the British territory of Gibraltar, a group of Neandertals eked out a living along the rocky Mediterranean coast. They were quite possibly the last of their kind. Elsewhere in Europe and western Asia, Neandertals had disappeared thousands of years earlier, after having ruled for more than 200,000 years. The Iberian Peninsula, with its comparatively mild climate and rich array of animals and plants, seems to have been the final stronghold. Soon, however, the Gibraltar population, too, would die out, leaving behind only a smattering of their stone tools and the charred remnants of their campfires.

Ever since the discovery of the first Neandertal fossil in 1856, scientists have debated the place of these bygone humans on the family tree and what became of them. Recent analyses of Neandertal DNA indicate that they interbred with modern humans. In addition, improvements in dating methods show that rather than disappearing immediately after the moderns invaded Europe, starting a little more than 40,000 years ago, the Neandertals survived for nearly 15,000 years after moderns moved in. These findings make clear that moderns did not simply extirpate the Neandertals on entering their territory, as one theory envisioned. How, then, did our closest evolutionary relatives become extinct? Mounting evidence suggests that the answer involves a complicated interplay of stresses.

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