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 When the last Ice Age rescinded, these animals died off, and the Neanderthals with them.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.

Early humans. 

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: 

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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