Neanderthals, technically known as H. neanderthalensis, emerged from the European group of H. heidelbergensis around 400,000 years ago. With considerable intellectual heft, they soon populated the entire continent, peaking at around 45,000 years ago.
Then, at the height of their dominion, they suddenly and almost inexplicably died out. Although this has been known for some time now, a new review study in the journal Quaternary International highlights just how rapid their extinction was.
Between 110,000 and 70,000 years ago, there were just four known settlement sites in Germany. In stark contrast, between 70,000 and 43,000 years ago, there were 94 Neanderthal settlements. Based on current archaeological evidence in the region, however, they had completely evaporated from the scene just 1,000 years afterwards.
First off, this disappearance, which culminated in their species’ extinction 2,000 years later, is ludicrously rapid. As a point of comparison, the non-avian dinosaurs were in decline for 50 million years before the arrival of the final, fatal asteroid 66 million years ago.
Secondly, this evidence suggests that from the very height of their empire, Neanderthals went extinct within just a couple of thousand years. Jurgen Richter, the study’s author and a researcher at the Institute of Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Cologne, writes in his paper that their sudden disappearance was as if they decided to “leave at the height of the party.”
Neanderthal sites in Germany between 11,000 and 70,000 years ago (left) and 70,000 and 43,000 years ago (right). 3,000 years later, Neanderthals were completely extinct. What happened? Credit: Jurgen Richter/Quaternary International
Asking what killed off the Neanderthals is to ponder on one of the greatest scientific mysteries of our time. Our evolutionary cousins disappeared almost without a trace around 40,000 years ago, and there is no agreement as to what permanently resigned them to the bastions of history.
H. sapiens emerged from the African group of H. heidelbergensis around 200,000 years ago, who 110,000 years later were proficient hunter-gatherers armed with unique tools and novel weapons. They migrated up into Europe and the Middle East around 60,000 years ago. There’s evidence that they interbred with Neanderthals, but it’s not clear how well the two species got along in a more general sense.
Is it a coincidence that humans arrived at the height of the Neanderthal reign over Europe, and soon after our evolutionary cousins fell into a sudden, terminal decline? Probably not.
Some have suggested that disease brought by Homo sapiens, our own species, finished them off. Others have concluded that our own species may have outsmarted and outcompeted them for resources. One hypothesis posits that humans interbred with them to the point wherein there weren’t enough Neanderthals left.
Either way, Europe was ours 40,000 years ago, and the light of the Neanderthals was, enigmatically, extinguished.