Neanderthals were disappearing before modern humans arrived

The Neanderthals lived in the Northern and Western areas of Eurasia, during the Pleistocene epoch. Image: Shutterstock.

European Neanderthals were already on the verge of extinction 50,000 years ago.

The Neanderthal population in Europe was previously believed to be stable for hundreds of thousands of years before the arrival of modern humans. However, new findings from an international research team suggest that most Neanderthals in Europe died around 50,000 years ago.

The results, published in February 25 in Molecular Biology and Evolution, also indicated that a small group recolonised central and western Europe, where they survived for another 10,000 years before the arrival of modern humans.

“The fact that Neanderthals in Europe were nearly extinct, but then recovered, and that all this took place long before they came into contact with modern humans came as a complete surprise to us,” said Associate Professor Love Dalén, from the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm.

“This indicates that the Neanderthals may have been more sensitive to the dramatic climate changes that took place in the last Ice Age than was previously thought.”

While working on DNA from Neanderthal fossils in Northern Spain, the researchers found that the genetic variation among European Neanderthals had been extremely limited during the last 10,000 years before the Neanderthals disappeared. Older Neanderthal fossils and fossils from Asia had much greater genetic variation, on par with the variation expected from a species that had been abundant in an area for a long time.

“The amount of genetic variation in geologically older Neanderthals as well as in Asian Neanderthals was just as great as in modern humans as a species, whereas the variation among later European Neanderthals was not even as high as that of modern humans in Iceland,” said Associate Professor Anders Götherström, from Uppsala University in Sweden.

The results were based on severely degraded DNA, so the analyses required advanced laboratory and computational methods and involved experts from a number of countries. All members of the international research team reviewed the findings before they felt certain that the available genetic data revealed an important and previously unknown part of Neanderthal history.

– Laura Boness

Source: Uppsala University.

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