Neandertal demise may be the result of interbreeding, assimilation, not early modern human superiority

An analysis of the archaeological records of Neandertals and their modern human contemporaries has found that complex interbreeding and assimilation may have been responsible for Neandertal disappearance 40,000 years ago, in contrast to many current theories, according to results published April 30, 2014, in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Paola Villa from the University of Colorado Museum and Wil Roebroeks from Leiden University in the Netherlands.

Neandertals thrived in Eurasia for more than 300,000 years but vanished around 40,000 years ago, around the same time that modern humans entered Europe. Archaeologists have developed many theories to explain their disappearance, and many of these suggest that modern-day humans were superior in a wide range of ways, including weaponry and subsistence strategies. This superiority may have eventually led to the demise of Neandertals. However, new evidence, including genetic data, suggest that differences between Neandertals and modern humans in Africa may not be so clear as previously thought.

In this study, scientists systematically tested the strength of some of the archaeologically derived explanations for Neandertal extinction, such as the Neandertals’ supposed lack of complex language, inferior capacity for innovation, inferior hunting ability, and smaller social networks, as well as other environmental explanations, including harsh climate or volcanic eruptions that occurred at the time of their decline.

If the Neandertal record is compared to that of African Middle Stone Age human contemporaries, instead of the modern humans that succeeded them, the differences between them and humans in their capacities, like weaponry, subsistence, and use of symbols are too small to explain their demise in terms of cognitive or behavioral inferiority. Instead, the authors argue, genetic data recently obtained from Neandertal skeletal remains suggest that complex and drawn-out processes of interbreeding and assimilation may have been responsible for the disappearance of the specific Neandertal morphology from the fossil record.

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