Extinction of Neanderthals

The Science Teacher, January 2012 | Go to article overview
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Extinction of Neanderthals


Computational modeling that examines evidence of how hominin groups evolved culturally and biologically in response to climate change during the last Ice Age bears new insights into the extinction of Neanderthals. Details of the complex modeling experiments, which were conducted at Arizona State University (ASU) and the University of Colorado Denver, are published in the journal Human Ecology.

"To better understand human ecology, and especially how human culture and biology coevolved among hunter gatherers in the Late Pleistocene of Western Eurasia (about 128,000 to 11,500 years ago), we designed theoretical and methodological frameworks that incorporated feedback across three evolutionary systems: biological, cultural, and environmental," says Michael Barton, a pioneer in the area of archaeological applications of computational modeling at ASU.

"One scientifically interesting result of this research, which studied culturally and environmentally driven changes in land-use behaviors, is that it shows how Neanderthals could have disappeared not because they were somehow less fit than all other hominins who existed during the last glaciation, but because they were as behaviorally sophisticated as modern humans," says Barton.

The paper "Modeling Human Ecodynamics and Biocultural Interactions in the Late Pleistocene of Western Eurasia" is coauthored by Julien Riel-Salvatore, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado Denver; John Martin "Marty" Anderies, an associate professor of computational social science at ASU in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and the School of Sustainability; and Gabriel Popescu, an anthropology doctoral student in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at ASU.

"It's been long believed that Neanderthals were outcompeted by fitter modern humans and they could not adapt," says Riel-Salvatore. "We are changing the main narrative. Neanderthals were just as adaptable and in many ways, simply victims of their own success."

The interdisciplinary team of researchers used archeological data to track behavioral changes in Western Eurasia over a period of 100,000 years and showed that human mobility increased over time, probably in response to environmental change. According to Barton, the last Ice Age saw hunter gatherers, including both Neanderthals and the ancestors of modern humans, search for food more widely across Eurasia during a major shift in Earth's climate.

The scientists utilized computer modeling to explore the evolutionary consequences of those changes, including how changes in the movements of Neanderthals and modern humans caused them to interact, and interbreed, more often.

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