Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
What Killed off the Neanderthals? You Might Not Like the Answer
Homo sapiens would have carried tropical diseases with them out of Africa, infecting Neanderthals and speeding up their annihilation.
Beginning about 400,000 years ago, Neanderthals began moving across Europe and Western Asia. They roamed widely for hundreds of thousands of years. Then something happened about 45,000 years ago. That's when a new, invasive species turned up on the scene, homo sapiens—our direct ancestors. This group began migrating across Africa and into Europe. Waves of them came and spread out. The next bit has been a mystery to modern science. 5,000 years later, the Neanderthals disappeared. No one knows why. But a new discovery has us one step closer to a definitive answer.
One thing to note, the process of extinction is so complex, it is hard to understand why certain species vanish today, never mind tens of thousands of years ago. That said, there are many theories. Some have posited that our ancestors killed off the Neanderthals in disputes over precious resources. Others believe the two intermarried. Indeed, a smidgen of Neanderthal DNA has been found in the human genome, and resides within anyone whose ancestry lies outside of Africa, a place where Neanderthals never stepped foot. Another theory is that an alliance between wolves and humans gave them a competitive edge over their hominid cousins.
Until now, one of the leading theories was that climate change and competition did them in. Neanderthals were specialized to hunt large, Ice Age animals. When the last Ice Age rescinded, these animals died off, and the Neanderthals with them. Homo sapiens are also thought to have developed trade routes over long distances, giving them access to food and other resources during times of scarcity. Now a new collaborative study, published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, has added another theory. Homo sapiens would have carried tropical diseases with them out of Africa, infecting Neanderthals and speeding up their annihilation.
A handsome Neanderthal.
Researchers at Cambridge and Oxford Brookes Universities, both in England, posed this theory. They did so after finding genetic evidence that infectious diseases were tens of thousands of years older than first surmised. Since both species were hominin, it would have been easy for pathogens to jump from one to the other. Investigators examined the DNA of pathogens found in ancient human fossils, and the DNA of the fossils themselves, to come to these conclusions.
Strong evidence suggests that homo sapiens mated with Neanderthals. By doing so, they would have transmitted genes associated with disease. Since there is evidence that viruses moved from other hominins to homo sapiens in Africa, it makes sense that these could in turn be passed on to Neanderthals, who had no immunity to them.
Dr. Charlotte Houldcroft was one of the researchers involved with this study. She hails from Cambridge's Division of Biological Anthropology. Houldcroft called homo sapiens migrating out of Africa reservoirs of tropical disease. She said that many pathogens, such as tuberculosis, tapeworms, stomach ulcers, even the two different kinds of herpes, may have been transmitted from early humans to Neanderthals. These are chronic diseases which would have weakened Neanderthal populations substantially.
We may be reminded by the aftermath of Columbus and how small pox, measles, and other illnesses ravaged the inhabitants of the so-called New World. Houldcroft says this comparison is not accurate. “It's more likely that small bands of Neanderthals each had their own infection disasters, weakening the group and tipping the balance against survival," she said.
This discovery was made possible through new DNA extraction methods from fossils to search for traces of illness, as well as new techniques in deciphering our genetic code. Dr. Simon Underdown was another researcher whose work helped formulate this theory. He studies human evolution at Oxford Brookes University. Dr. Underdown wrote that the genetic data from many of these pathogens suggests that they may have been, "co-evolving with humans and our ancestors for tens of thousands to millions of years."
Previous theories state that epidemics of infectious diseases broke out at the beginning of the agricultural revolution, around 8,000 years ago. At that time, previously nomadic populations began settling down with their livestock. Many pathogens mutate and jump to humans from animals. These are known as “zoonoses." This dramatic change in lifestyle created the perfect environment for epidemics to occur. The latest research suggests however that the spreading of infectious diseases over a widespread area predates the dawn of agriculture entirely.
One example, it was thought that tuberculosis jumped from livestock to homo sapiens. After in-depth research, we now know that herd animals became infected through consistent contact with humans. Though there is no direct evidence that infectious diseases were transmitted from humans to Neanderthals, strong evidence of interbreeding leads researchers to believe that it must have occurred.
While early humans, used to African diseases, would have benefited from interbreeding with Neanderthals, as they would procure immunity to European-borne illnesses, Neanderthals would suffer from the transmission of African diseases to them. Though this doesn't completely put the mystery to rest, according to Houldcroft, "It is probable that a combination of factors caused the demise of Neanderthals, and the evidence is building that spread of disease was an important one."
To learn more about the extinction of the Neanderthals click here:
A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.
- A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
- The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
- An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
Foul play?<p>A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during a high speed rail excavation.</p><p>The positioning of the remains have led archaeologists to suspect that the man may have been a victim of an ancient murder or execution. Though any bindings have since decomposed, his hands were positioned together and pinned under his pelvis. There was also no sign of a grave or coffin. </p><p>"He seems to have had his hands tied, and he was face-down in the bottom of the ditch," <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">said archaeologist Rachel Wood</a>, who led the excavation. "There are not many ways that you end up that way."</p><p>Currently, archaeologists are examining the skeleton to uncover more information about the circumstances of the man's death. Fragments of pottery found in the ditch may offer some clues as to exactly when the man died. </p><p>"If he was struck across the head with a heavy object, you could find a mark of that on the back of the skull," Wood said to <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>. "If he was stabbed, you could find blade marks on the ribs. So we're hoping to find something like that, to tell us how he died."</p>
Other discoveries at Wellwick Farm<p>The grim discovery was made at Wellwick Farm near Wendover. That is about 15 miles north-west of the outskirts of London, where <a href="https://www.hs2.org.uk/building-hs2/hs2-green-corridor/" target="_blank">a tunnel</a> is going to be built as part of a HS2 high-speed rail project due to open between London and several northern cities sometime after 2028. The infrastructure project has been something of a bonanza for archaeology as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route that are now being excavated before construction begins. </p><p>The farm sits less than a mile away from the ancient highway <a href="http://web.stanford.edu/group/texttechnologies/cgi-bin/stanfordnottingham/places/?icknield" target="_blank">Icknield Way</a> that runs along the tops of the Chiltern Hills. The route (now mostly trails) has been used since prehistoric times. Evidence at Wellwick Farm indicates that from the Neolithic to the Medieval eras, humans have occupied the region for more than 4,000 years, making it a rich area for archaeological finds. </p><p>Wood and her colleagues found some evidence of an ancient village occupied from the late Bronze Age (more than 3,000 years ago) until the Roman Empire's invasion of southern England about 2,000 years ago. At the site were the remains of animal pens, pits for disposing food, and a roundhouse — a standard British dwelling during the Bronze Age constructed with a circular plan made of stone or wood topped with a conical thatched roof.</p>
Ceremonial burial site<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDgwNTIyMX0.I49n1-j8WVhKjIZS_wVWZissnk3W1583yYXB7qaGtN8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C82%2C0%2C83&height=700" id="44da7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="46cfc8ca1c64fc404b32014542221275" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="top down view of coffin" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
A high status burial in a lead-lined coffin dating back to Roman times.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>While these ancient people moved away from Wellwick Farm before the Romans invaded, a large portion of the area was still used for ritual burials for high-status members of society, Wood told Live Science. The ceremonial burial site included a circular ditch (about 60 feet across) at the center, and was a bit of a distance away from the ditch where the (suspected) murder victim was uncovered. Additionally, archaeologists found an ornately detailed grave near the sacred burial site that dates back to the Roman period, hundreds of years later when the original Bronze Age burial site would have been overgrown.</p><p>The newer grave from the Roman period encapsulated an adult skeleton contained in a lead-lined coffin. It's likely that the outer coffin had been made of wood that rotted away. Since it was clearly an ornate burial, the occupant of the grave was probably a person of high status who could afford such a lavish burial. However, according to Wood, no treasures or tokens had been discovered. </p>
Sacred timber circle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDAwOTQ4Mn0.eVJAUcD0uBUkVMFuMOPSgH8EssGkfLf_MjwUv0zGCI8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C149%2C0%2C149&height=700" id="9de6a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee66520d470b26f5c055eaef0b95ec06" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="An aerial view of the sacred circular monument." data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
An aerial view of the sacred circular monument.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>One of the most compelling archaeological discoveries at Wellwick Farm are the indications of a huge ceremonial circle once circumscribed by timber posts lying south of the Bronze Age burial site. Though the wooden posts have rotted away, signs of the post holes remain. It's thought to date from the Neolithic period to 5,000 years ago, according to Wood.</p><p>This circle would have had a diameter stretching 210 feet across and consisted of two rings of hundreds of posts. There would have been an entry gap to the south-west. Five posts in the very center of the circle aligned with that same gap, which, according to Wood, appeared to have been in the direction of the rising sun on the day of the midwinter solstice. </p><p>Similar Neolithic timber circles have been discovered around Great Britain, such as one near <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/stonehenge-sarsens" target="_blank">Stonehenge</a> that is considered to date back to around the same time. </p>
As patients approached death, many had dreams and visions of deceased loved ones.
One of the most devastating elements of the coronavirus pandemic has been the inability to personally care for loved ones who have fallen ill.
Research reveals a new evolutionary feature that separates humans from other primates.
- Researchers find a new feature of human evolution.
- Humans have evolved to use less water per day than other primates.
- The nose is one of the factors that allows humans to be water efficient.
A model of water turnover for humans and chimpanzees who have similar fat free mass and body water pools.
Credit: Current Biology
Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.