Wednesday, September 22, 2010

New Neanderthal Extinction Theory

Assuming you still believe Neanderthals are a separate human line -- and not a subspecies, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis (wiki)-- you might be interested in knowing that Liubov Golovanova of Russia's ANO Laboratory of Prehistory in St. Petersburg is suggesting that they disappeared 30,000 years ago because of an environmental catastrophe.

According to the study, ash, pollen and tools left in Mezmaiskaya Cave suggests that "volcanic eruptions had an unusually sudden and devastating effect on the ecology and forced the fast and extreme climate deterioration ('volcanic winter') of the Northern Hemisphere." They point to evidence for a massive eruption around 40,000 years in southern Italy as well as a smaller eruption a bit earlier in the Caucasus.

USAToday quotes Golovanova's paper, which will appear in the next addition of Current Anthropology, as saying:

"On the basis of these data, we offer the hypothesis that the Neanderthal demise occurred abruptly (on a geological timescale) at around 40,000 BP (before present) after the most powerful volcanic activity in western Eurasia during the period of Neanderthal evolutionary history. We further hypothesize that this catastrophe not only drastically destroyed the ecological niches of Neanderthal populations but also caused their mass physical depopulation in most of their habitation areas across Europe and the Near East. This loss of viable source populations may have significantly contributed to the eventual extinction of Neanderthals throughout their range," says the study.

As you can imagine, this theory is highly controversial, and personally, while I think it's interesting and important data, I don't believe it's sufficient to account for Neanderthal extinction given the wide range that our possibly-close relatives inhabited. Here's a range chart. See what I mean.

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