All Neanderthals were killed by Homo sapiens

Why did the Neanderthals die out?

The last fight?

Neanderthals stuck together, cared for the sick and shared their booty among themselves. They were also strong and clever, knew the safest hiding places and the most productive hunting regions. Yet today there is no longer a single Neanderthals among us 7.5 billion people.

Homo sapiens reached Europe around 40,000 years ago, 10,000 years later the Neanderthals disappeared forever. The assumption that our ancestors are not entirely innocent of this is obvious. Did modern man fight, drive away, and eventually exterminate his distant cousin?

The theory of the first genocide in history came about after researchers found 800 pieces of bone near Krapina in Croatia in 1899. Speculation arose about the final battle of a millennia-old war between Neanderthals and modern humans.

At least for Krapina, this bloodthirsty scenario has been refuted: The remains come from Neanderthals who lived around 130,000 years ago - long before Homo sapiens came to Europe. So far there are no other indications of armed conflicts.

For a long time, many researchers doubted whether Neanderthals and modern humans would ever come face to face. After all, it is estimated that there were only around 250,000 Neanderthals in ice-free Europe when their slender relatives joined them. Most of the researchers speculated that the migrating clans were not likely to have quarreled about hunting grounds and caves all too often.

In May 2010, however, a Leipzig research team led by the geneticist Svante Pääbo presented astonishing things: after deciphering the Neanderthal genome, the scientists found that one to four percent of our DNA comes from Neanderthals. So Neanderthals and modern humans must have mixed together when they lived in Europe and the Middle East at the same time.

For scientists such as Astrid Slizewski from the Neandertal Museum in Mettmann, these new findings speak against the theory that modern man has exterminated the Neanderthal.

Lack of immune system?

With the glorious explorer James Cook and his team, measles, smallpox, leprosy, syphilis and other unpleasant diseases also landed on Hawaii in 1779. For most of the natives this meant certain death.

Hawaii was not an isolated case. Time and again in colonial history whole peoples were exterminated or severely decimated because they had no defenses against the pathogens they did not know. Could it be similar with the Neanderthals? Did Homo sapiens introduce new bacteria and viruses to Europe and slowly wipe out its distant relatives?

This theory is conceivable, but it has not yet been proven. Since the bone finds indicate that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens shared a habitat for at least 10,000 years, the assumption is rather unlikely.

The Neanderthals as a grouch about reproduction?

The rock overhang in La Ferrassie near the present-day town of Le Bugue was a place of mourning. Eight Neanderthals were buried there around 50,000 years ago, including five children. Some scientists see the cemetery of La Ferrassie as an indication of the so-called gentle extinction of the Neanderthals: high child mortality coupled with an overall low life expectancy.

The harsh climate of the Ice Age around 30,000 years ago could have reduced the children's chances of survival. In addition, the cold probably made it difficult to reproduce: in order to father offspring, it was important to meet other clans, because reproduction within a group had natural limits. With a total of only around 250,000 Neanderthals in Europe who constantly changed their whereabouts, it would have been difficult to find a partner.

The study by the American Ezra Zubrow is often cited in this context. In 1989, he calculated how the Neanderthals could have disappeared within 1000 years: To do this, their mortality rate would have to have been only two percent higher than that of Homo sapiens.

However, the calculation model does not answer why the immigrants should have had more luck. One reason could have been the Neanderthal's eating habits - and his high need for calories.

Eating habits as fatality?

The Neanderthal was not a fan of vegetarian food: he was hardly enthusiastic about berries, roots and nuts, he only ate them in an emergency. His diet consisted of 90 percent meat. But he ate the reindeer, bears and goats not only because they tasted better, but also because their meat was more energetic than vegetarian food.

Muscular strength and stoutness demanded their price. According to calculations by the American scientist Steven Churchill, a full-grown male Neanderthal had to consume 4500 to 5000 calories a day. Two kilos of reindeer meat every day - that was the only way he could cope with the rigors of the freezing cold.

He needed about a third more calories than an Inuit man living today. He consumed the calorie requirement of a modern office worker alone to breathe and not to freeze to death.

If the supply of food became scarce in deep winter, he could have reduced his power to this energy-saving mode and entered a kind of hibernation. Of course, reproduction would not have been possible at this time.

The more graceful Homo sapiens need not have hunted more successfully or sneakily exterminated the Neanderthals. His anatomy and a more flexible menu were perhaps decisive advantages for him in times of scarce food.

Did a volcanic eruption do the rest?

40,000 years ago, the Neanderthals were under great pressure. The competition with the up-and-coming Homo sapiens, climatic fluctuations and famine made them difficult. Genetic analyzes assume that the Neanderthal population at that time comprised only about 10,000 individuals. Any external disturbance can have a major impact on such a small population.

Exactly at this point in time a huge natural disaster occurred: the eruption of a super volcano on the Phlegraean fields near Naples. The Neanderthals did not care much about the direct consequences of the eruption, as they did not settle in the immediate vicinity of the volcano at all. However, mighty clouds of ash moved far over Europe - over the Balkans and Eastern Europe to Russia.

Geomorphologists from the University of Bayreuth have found ash deposits up to one meter thick in studies of the history of the landscape in Romania. Geochemical and rock magnetic analyzes have shown that the ashes come from the eruption of the Phlegraean Fields.

The consequences for all living things must have been devastating. The ash rain not only changed the landscape, it also heralded a strong cooling of the climate. The temperatures dropped by two to four degrees Celsius for a few years - a so-called volcanic winter set in. In addition, the ash rain carried poisonous substances such as sulfur, fluorine and chlorine with it, which - washed out of the ash - must have poisoned many herbivores.

Many researchers therefore suspect that the already weakened Neanderthals population was no longer able to face these radical environmental changes. Perhaps Homo sapiens was more adaptable and therefore won the competition for the few remaining resources.

Does the Neanderthal live on in us?

Neanderthals have not existed for a long time. But are they really extinct? The decoding of the Neanderthal genome in May 2010 showed that one to four percent of our genome comes from Neanderthals.

So Neanderthals and modern humans actually had sex. And Europeans still carry a small part of Neanderthals within them today. The researchers gained this knowledge with the help of three 38,000-year-old pieces of bone that were still suitable for genetic analysis.