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article imageStudy says Neanderthals' demise came from breeding with humans

By Albert Baer     Nov 28, 2011 in Science
A new study supports the hypothesis that interbreeding with modern humans contributed significantly to the disappearance of the Neanderthals.
Anthropologists have puzzled for years about the cause of the decline of the Neanderthals. The species Homo neanderthalensis was a widespread group occupying much of Europe and northwestern Asia until approximately 30,000 years ago. Anthropologists generally consider Neanderthals to be either a closely related human group, or an actual subspecies of Homo sapiens. Theories about their demise have included the lack of ability to respond to a changing climate and violent extermination through conflict with modern humans.
Recent genetic studies, however, have indicated that populations of Neanderthals and early humans interbred as modern humans migrated into Neanderthal territory. Genetic censuses show that approximately one to four percent of the genome of modern people of Eurasian descent is shared with Neanderthals.
A new study set to be published by the journal Human Ecology shows that, given this interbreeding, mingling with modern humans likely contributed significantly to the disappearance of the Neanderthals. According to this model, as more populous modern humans moved into Neanderthal territories and the groups interbred, the Neanderthal genes were swamped by the modern human genes in the new genetic pool that was produced. Julien Riel-Salvatore, a co-author of the study, told the Denver Post that this shows that the Neanderthals were in many ways a “victim of their own success” in their ability to mix with modern humans. Rather than persisting as a distinct group, the Neanderthals were absorbed into the new population. C. Michael Barton, another co-author, tells National Geographic that this method of extinction is well known. “In conservation biology this is called extinction by hybridization,” he says.
Other researchers are interested but still skeptical. Also speaking to National Geographic, researcher Bence Viola suggests that while interbreeding undoubtedly occurred, many other factors were at play during the demise of the Neanderthals, including a changing climate as the Ice Age came to an end, and the probability that emigrating modern humans carried with them new diseases to which the Neanderthals had no resistance.
The study will be published in the December issue of Human Ecology.
More about Evolution, Anthropology, Genetics, Neanderthals
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