Archaeologists and palaeontologists have long suspected Homo Neanderthaliensis, a subspecies of pre-historic humans, died due to changes in the planet’s climate. But a group of Neanderthals living in the Western Mediterranean some 42,000 years ago appears to have escaped this faith. A team of researchers from the University of Bologna in Italy have now recreated Earth’s prehistoric climate to better understand what happened to the Neanderthals.
The researchers analysed stalagmite formations found in caves in Apulia, a region on the coast of the Adriatic Sea in Southern Italy.
Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens are known to have coexisted in this region, particularly on the Murge karst plateau, for at least 3,000 years.
The two species lived here between 45,000 and 42,000 years ago.
Data extracted from stalagmites in this region shows climate change in this timespan was not particularly significant.
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Lead researcher Andrea Columbu said: “Our study shows that this area of Apulia appears as a ‘climate niche’ during the transition from Neanderthals to Homo Sapiens.
“It doesn’t seem possible that significant climate changes happened during that period, at least not impactful enough to cause the extinction of Neanderthals in Apulia and, by the same token, in similar areas of the Mediterranean.”
Scientists have theorised the Neanderthals were killed by climate change that occurred in Europe nearly 42,000 years ago.
According to this theory, rapid changes in the climate during the last ice age produced increasingly cold and dry weather.
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Ice cores extracted from Greenland how the climate changed during the Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age.
But data collected in the Mediterranean has in some cases contradicted these findings, adding more fuel to the mystery.
Research coordinator Jo De Waele said: “The analyses we carried out show little variation in rainfall between 50,000 and 27,000 years ago, the extent of this variation is not enough to cause alterations in the flora inhabiting the environment above the cave.
“Carbon isotopes show that the bio-productivity of the soil remained all in all consistent during this period that includes the 3,000 years-long coexistence between Sapiens and Neanderthals.
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“This means that significant changes in flora and thus in climate did not happen
The study’s findings were published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.
So what happened to the Neanderthals who have lived in parts of the Mediterranean since 100,000 years ago?
Stefano Benazzi, a palaeontologist at the University of Bologna, believes hunting technology played a key role in their extinction.
He said: “The results we obtained corroborate the hypothesis, put forward by many scholars, that the extinction of Neanderthals had to do with technology.
“According to this hypothesis, the Homo Sapiens hunted using a technology that was far more advanced than Neanderthals’, and this represented a primary reason to Sapiens’ supremacy over Neanderthals, that eventually became extinct after 3,000 years of co-existence.”
Another theory, proposed by researchers in 2019, suggests disease played a big role in the extinction process.
Many researchers also suspect our species, Homo Sapiens, contributed to the death of the Neanderthals.
A third theory suggests Neanderthals struggled to breed in big enough numbers as a result of living in small, tight-knit communities – the so-called Alee effect.