About 39 thousand years ago all sign of the presence of Neanderthal bands in their extensive range across western Eurasia disappears. Their demise occurred during a period of relative warmth (Marine-Isotope Stage-3) following a cold period at its worst around 65 ka (MIS-4). They had previously thrived since their first appearance in Eurasia at about 250 ka, surviving at least two full glacial cycles. Their demise occurred around 5 thousand years after they were joined in western Eurasia by anatomically modern humans (AMH). During their long period of habitation they had adapted well to a range of climatic zones from woodland to tundra. During their overlap both groups shared much the same food resources, dominated by large herbivores whose numbers burgeoned during the warm period, with the difference that Neanderthals seemed to have depended on ranges centred on fixed sites of habitation while AMH maintained a nomadic lifestyle. Having shared a common African ancestry about 400 thousand years ago, DNA studies have revealed that the two populations interbred regularly, probably in the earlier period of overlap in west Asia from around 120 thousand years ago and possibly in Europe too after 44 ka. Considering their previous tenacity, how the Neanderthals met their end is something of a mystery. It may have been a result of competition for resources with AMH, which could be countered by the increase in food resources. Maybe physical conflict was involved, or perhaps disease imported with AMH from warmer climes. Genetic absorption through interbreeding of a small population with a larger one of AMH is a possibility, although DNA evidence is lacking. An inability to adapt to climate change contradicts the Neanderthals long record and their disappearance during MIS-3. Previous population estimates of changing Neanderthal populations in the Iberian Peninsula (see Fig. 2 in Roberts, M.F. & Bricher, S.E 2018. Modeling the disappearance of the Neanderthals using principles of population dynamics and ecology. Journal of Archaeological Science, v. 100, p.16-31; DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2018.09.012) show decline from about 70,000 to 20,000 before MIS-4, then recovery to about 40,000 before the arrival of AMH at 44 ka followed by a decline to extinction thereafter. Roberts and Bricher developed a model for investigating demographics from archaeological evidence that is neutral as regards any particular hypothesis for Neanderthal extinction.
Attempting to take modelling further, another research consortium from France has focussed on the demographic changes needed to draw Neanderthals to extinction (Degioanni, A. et al. 2019. Living on the edge: Was demographic weakness the cause of Neanderthal demise? PLOS One, v. 14(5): e0216742; DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0216742). It is based on studies of living hunter-gatherer groups and those from the recent past. Survival of individuals in such groups is strongly age-dependent, i.e. low survival among juveniles, high among individuals in their prime and decreasing among the elderly. Fertility also varies among females, increasing from post-pubescence to ages between 21 to 30 years. In groups that practice sexual pairing between individuals from different communities (exogamy) migration from one to another is necessary to avoid inbreeding. The modellers assumed that only individuals from 16 to 18 years old migrated in this way. They found that a small decrease (~8%) in the fertility rate of younger females (<20 years) having a child for the first time could produce the decreasing trend in Neanderthal populations during the 5,000 year period of sharing resources with AMH populations. This would have culminated in the extinction of the Neanderthals, irrespective of the fertility rates of older, pre-menopausal females. So what could trigger such a change from a primiparous fertility rate that gave stable or growing population to one that ended so badly? The authors make no suggestion, eschewing the ‘why’ for the ‘how’. All they suggest is that the decrease in Neanderthals, which would have benefited AMH settlement in the vacated areas, could have occurred without any need for some catastrophic event, such as disease, slaughter or climate change. Any of these causes would probably have resulted in more rapid extinction. However, the lead author, Anna Degioanni from Aix Marseille Université, when interviewed by The Independent newspaper said. ‘First-time pregnancies, especially in young females (less than 20 years old), are on average more at risk than second and other pregnancies… a slight decrease in food may explain a reduction in fertility, especially among first-time mothers’.
One of the key features of Neanderthals is that they were probably sedentary with widely spaced communities across their huge range. So exogamy would have been more difficult for them than it would have been for nomadic groups. Genetic evidence from a few Neanderthals suggests that inbreeding was an issue. Had it been widespread among Neanderthals – risky to infer from such scanty information – that may also account for decreased primiparous fertility and also survival of newborns.
Related article: Neanderthals may have died out because of infertility, new model suggests. (The Independent)