Think Outside the Bison, People

Before the chill. Neandertal communities (black dots) flourished before the Ice Age got a good grip on Europe.

One of the most fascinating mysteries in human history is the fate of the Neandertals, who thrived in Europe for thousands of years before becoming extinct around 30,000 years ago as glaciers crept over the continent. Now a large, multidisciplinary group of scientists says the Neandertals met their end because they couldn't adapt to changes in the food supply.

Last week, a team headed by Tjeerd van Andel, a geoarchaeologist at the University of Cambridge, U.K., published a book (Neanderthal and Modern Humans in the European Landscape of the Last Glaciation) on results from a 7-year project which, for the first time, combines all climatic, environmental, and archaeological information for the time period between 65,000 and 20,000 years ago, when anatomically modern humans became dominant and the Neandertals completely disappeared.

The Ice Age in Europe wasn't always icy, they report. A relatively temperate climate prevailed before things started to chill down about 30,000 years ago. By 20,000 years ago half of Europe was under ice. But the Neandertals' downfall wasn't the weather, according to Van Andel and colleagues. Rather, it was their dependence on "sedentary herbivores," such as herds of bison and giant deer. When these gave way to more thinly spread steppe animals and migrating herds that had to be followed, they apparently couldn't adapt.

Van Andel adds that "the great surprise" was that the contemporaneous early modern humans, the Aurignacians, who favored the same environments and food, disappeared with the Neandertals. Van Andel thinks this suggests that failure to adapt had more to do with culture than brain anatomy; in his opinion, Neandertals were "just as smart as anybody else." When a later culture--called Gravettian--appeared around 35,000 years ago, they survived thanks to better technology such as heavy spears and knives and tightly knit family groups that were organized enough to follow migrating herds.

Most archaeologists have assumed that Europe was "more or less uniformly cold" during this period, says archaeologist Curtis Runnels of Boston University. Now the detailed modeling, which tracked both climate and human settlements in 5000-year segments throughout Europe, shows that the Neandertals "played out their final millennia in a varied climate," he says. Nonetheless, they couldn't hack it once the changing food supply called for new ideas.

Related site
The project's home page

Follow News from Science

A 3D plot from a model of the Ebola risk faced at different West African regions over time.
dancing shoes