News / Science & Technology

Neanderthals Almost Extinct in Europe When Homo Sapiens Arrived

A museum recreation of Neanderthals (undated photo)
A museum recreation of Neanderthals (undated photo)

A new scientific study indicates that most Neanderthals already were largely extinct across most of Europe 50,000 years ago - long before our Homo sapien ancestors first arrived on the continent.

An international team of researchers says its findings contradict the long-held notion that Neanderthal populations were stable in Europe for hundreds of thousands of years until modern Homo sapiens arrived.  The researchers made their findings from the analysis of DNA taken from the fossil teeth of 13 Neanderthal individuals who lived in what is northern Spain.

The scientists say the Neanderthal human species already had died off as early as 50,000 years ago, but a small group recovered and survived for another 10,000 years in areas of central and western Europe.  The results suggest that Neanderthals may have been more sensitive to the dramatic changes in climate that occurred in the last Ice Age than previously thought.

The DNA analysis shows that older European Neanderthals, as well as those in Asia, had a much greater genetic variation than much later populations that lived when the species was declining.

The study's co-authors say they consulted with a number of experts across several scientific disciplines to help confirm their findings because all of their results were based on severely degraded DNA.  They employed both advanced laboratory and computational methods of analyses to reach their conclusions.

The scientists say they only felt certain of their results after an international research team had reviewed the findings, and believe the genetic data reveals an important and previously unknown part of Neanderthal history.

The study was led by scientists at Sweden’s University of Uppsala, and included researchers from Spain, Denmark and the United States.  A report on the team’s findings is published in the journal, Molecular Biology and Evolution.

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