Where Did All the Neanderthals Go?


For over 150,000 years, our ancient cousins, the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis), thrived throughout Europe until, in the blink of an eye (geologically speaking), they disappeared off the face of the Earth. Several theories have been proposed to explain their extinction, although a consensus is growing that the primary factor was competition with us (Homo sapiens). Despite their annihilation, however, their legacy lives on today – in the human genome.

Neanderthal Basics 

Living in Europe and Asia from about 200,000 to 40,000 years ago, the Neanderthal shared many characteristics with modern humans, and in fact, genetically differed only by about 0.12%. Muscular, short and strong, with sloping foreheads and prominent brows, although their appearance would have seemed brutish, scientists note that their brains were about the same size as their Cro-Magnon (early modern human) neighbors.

Neanderthal Extinction

Recent DNA research has revealed that most Neanderthal died out in Western Europe about 50,000 years ago, and only a remnant of the species lasted through the next 10 millennia – when humans first migrated to Europe.

First Mass Die-Off

The scientists who discovered the first massive dying out theorize that climate change, such as one of the many periods of “sudden intense cold and dry phases” known as Heinrich events, may have been the culprit.

Whatever the source, only a handful of survivors remained in the warmer southern areas of Europe, and these remnants are believed to have interbred, resulting in limited genetic variation – a condition that “can make a species less resilient to changes in its environment, and place it at increased risk of extinction.”

Cro-Magnon Competition

Although in years past scientists believed Homo sapiens did not arrive in Europe until about 35,000 BP (before present), recent improvements in archaeological dating methods, and a second look at some very old teeth, have shown that modern humans likely first entered Europe about 45,000 years ago. This period coincides with the loss of diversity (and greater weakness) in the Neanderthal population, and predates its extinction by only 5,000 years.

Coincidence? Most think not, and the consensus is that sapiens simply out-competed neanderthalensis. In support of this theory, some note that although the two had similar brain sizes, the Neanderthal brain was more consumed with managing its significantly larger body and visual processing than with “high-level processing.” As a result, they theorize that the Neanderthal simply did not have the complex language or ability to manage extended social networks that Cro-Magnon had.

The ability to maintain strong social relationships across large distances is believed to have been a distinct advantage when dealing with environmental changes – such as climate change or a major volcanic eruption. Evidence collected throughout Europe demonstrates that while Neanderthal may have maintained relationships with kin up to 30 miles distant, Cro-Magnon were travelling several times that – up to 200 miles.

On this same vein, other researchers note that during this time, Cro-Magnon children enjoyed a longer period of development when compared with Neanderthal children – giving them greater time to learn from elders, and ultimately leading to longer lives. Both factors are believed to also have played a part in Homo sapiens greater ability to adapt to environmental disruptions.

Volcanic Eruptions

About the time of the Neanderthal extinction, two massive volcanic eruptions covered the continent with ash, killing most plant life and blotting out the sun with thick clouds. The first occurred in the Caucuses about 45,000 years ago, while the second, known as the Campanian Ignimbrite, erupted in southern Italy at around 40,000 BP.

Since in the past many thought modern humans had not migrated to Europe until 5,000 years after the eruptions, a popular theory held that the volcanic winter killed-off the Neanderthal – while early modern humans were safely living to the south in Africa.

However, with the recent changes to the date of first arrival, so that it now coincides with the volcanic eruptions, researchers have had to take a second look. Examining minute particles of volcanic ash from sites a bit more distant from the Italian eruption, they discovered that the ash was on top of archaeological evidence that showed “the transition from Neanderthal to modern human stone tool types.” Since this evidence demonstrates that the Neanderthal were displaced by Cro-Magnon in those sites before the volcano erupted, the researchers concluded that another factor was to blame.

Climate Change

The same researchers who examined the volcanic ash also analyzed tree pollen and other indicators of climate change (like marsh and sea sediments) and determined that during this period, the Heinrich event (period of sudden cold and dry conditions) had yet to occur. They deduced, therefore, that climate was also not responsible, at least directly, for the extinction of Neanderthal. Ultimately they concluded that competition with cleverer Homo sapiens was likely to blame.

Gone But Not Forgotten

Although competition with early modern humans may have been the final cause for Neanderthal extinction, there is little to no evidence of animosity between the groups – and in fact, it appears the opposite may be true.

Recent genetic research has shown that “about 2% of the genomes of people who descend from Europeans, Asians and other non-Africans is Neanderthal,” meaning that the two different species interbred at some point.

Nonetheless, because of the distance between them genetically, scientists note they were not very compatible biologically speaking, so that the offspring between a Neanderthal and a Cro-Magnon was often infertile. In addition, many of the Neanderthal genes in those hybrids that continued to mate with humans were eventually selected out.

Interestingly, although Neanderthal DNA makes up only a small amount of our genome, since different humans today carry different Neanderthal genes, when combined together, modern humanity contains a record of about 20% of the Neanderthal genome.

Notably, nearly all Neanderthal DNA found in humans today comes down through the female line because the male hybrids were “significantly less fertile, and possibly even sterile.”

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  • Climate change. Is that the answer to all of our problems now? I swear we have gotten more friggin STUPID since 1969 and that has grown exponentially since 1992. BP? Before present? Are you KIDDING ME? How about BP = Before Pluto, at least that would be funny.

  • Most of the archiolgical sites for Neanderthals are in France. I don’t think that is a coincidence. Broodish behavior, rudeness, barely civilized, breeds indiscriminately, dull facial expressions … Sound like any nationalities you know, who happen to live in that part of the world? Who says the Neanderthals died out? I think they are still alive, thriving and even have their own country…. Viva la France…

  • Honestly BP is completely useless of a term. What exactly is the difference between BP and “ago”? Other than that bit of douchbaggery, it was a good article.

  • The hybrids sons of Neanderthal man and Homo Sapiens woman were infertile; but not their daughters.
    I guess the female descendants of those daughters, interbred with Neanderthal man, and others with Homo Sapiens male, during ten thousand yrs.
    About 20 thousands yrs ago, there were no full blood Neanderthal alive, but most of us carry their genes, so we are in part (small part) Neanderthal.

  • As an anthropologist, the comments here show clear evidence of the current crop of Neanderthals. Your ignorance is appalling, and I sincerely hope that none of you reproduce.

  • As an anthropologist, you should go out into the field, find an ancient civilization and relics from their cities. You should sort these relics out by age and size, and then, upon selecting the oldest and largest of said relics, shove that relic up your ass. Sideways. With Gusto.
    Now you have permission to be “appalled”. And not only am I reproducing, I squirted a baby into your daughter, so… Have fun loving that idiotic, but oh-so-prudish, grandchild.

  • Cristoval Jesus

    I bet our human ancestors killed them for whatever reasons just like they killed a whole bunch of other species like we still do today. A day will come when we humans will be erased from the earth. That could be because of climate change. LOL!

  • According to “Decoding Neanderthals” there has been discovered Neanderthal made spears with flint heads and secured with a pitch made from birch bark. When trying to replicate the method of building, it has been found that their flint tools had to be crafted through a very specific process. They also managed to make a similar pitch from birch bark but found that in order to get enough to use, the process of making would have to have been scaled up a lot and we don’t yet know how they did it; meaning that actually the earliest manufacturing process was invented by the Neanderthals and not HomoSapiens as previously thought. Both of these processes would most certainly require language to teach and learn.
    Summary: Neanderthals were NOT unintelligent.

    Also, since it has now been proven that Neanderthals did interbreed with homosapiens, and that we probably actually inherited our *very important immune system!* from them, that makes them also our ancestors.
    For Europeans (especially Tuscans who have the highest amount of Nean’ DNA) there is no “us” and “them”. They are our ancestors and they gave us important DNA which we should all be grateful for.

    (Maybe before you start flinging around “neanderthal” as an insult you should first pull your head out of your arse, and then think about how much of their DNA is most likely in you!)

  • “35,000 BP (before present)” ?? Serious ? There’s no need to invent new acronyms – just say it straight “37,000 years ago” and we know it’s relative to “now” … then come back in another 1,000 years and adjust to 38,000.

  • I’ve seen Neanderthals at my workplace. They did not die out.

  • All our Neanderthal genes come from the female line! That does not mean that offspring of Neanderthal males were infertile or did not survive. It simply means that interbreeding resulted from modern human males taking Neanderthal wives. Where the reverse occurred, the modern human female marrying a Neanderthal joined the Neanderthal tribe, and their offspring eventually became extinct when the Neanderthals did. If a modern human female got pregnant by a Neanderthal due to rape or a casual sexual encounter, then the offspring would probably not be raised.