Fate of the Neanderthals

In reproductions, they look startling like many of us.

Neanderthals were paleoanthropological beings anthropologists consider to be the Pleistocene species of the Homo genus. Their connection to homo sapiens (us) is still debated. They inhabited Europe and parts of western and central Asia, with their earliest traits showing up in Europe some 350,000 to 500,000 years ago.

By around 130,000 years ago, complete Neanderthal characteristics had appeared, only to disappear 30,000 years ago in Europe and 50,000 years ago in Asia. For many years, archaeologists have wondered why. As a matter of fact, investigators have located no specimens more recent than 30,000 years old.

Much of the scientific literature addressing the probable fate of the Neanderthals has been written by American anthropologist Erik Trinkaus of the faculty of Washington University in St. Louis. There are currently three popular hypotheses as to what happened to the Neanderthals.

The first premise suggests that they evolved into a separate species. After this species became extinct, it was replaced by our early human ancestors, who traveled from Africa. Modern humans began replacing Neanderthals about 45,000 years ago when the Cro-Magnon tribes appeared in Europe. This resulted in groups of cornered Neantherthals, who held on and hid out for thousands of years in areas such as the current Croatia, Iberia and the Crimean Peninsula.

A second theory holds that Neanderthals were actually a subspecies that incidentally bred with homo sapiens (our ancestors). They subsequently disappeared through absorption.

The final hypothesis promotes the idea that Neanderthals never split from Homo sapiens. As a matter of fact, it suggests, most of their populations transformed over time to take on the anatomy of modern humans.

Anthropologists have been arguing for years about the exact nature of the biological as well as cultural interactions between Neanderthals and human groups 30,000 to 50,000 years ago. In 2007, Clive Finlayson and Jose S. Carrion, writing in Trends in Ecology & Evolution, proposed that a new group, the Gravettians, were the anatomically modern human beings who contributed to a Eurasian gene pool. This was considered as possible evidence of the intermixing of Neaderthals and humans who were anatomically modern.

In recent years, the analysis of modern human emergency in Europe has shifted from emphasis on the Neantherdals to studying the biology and chronology of the earliest modern humans linked to eastern Europe/western Asia. It shows the presence of modern human beings prior to 28,000 years ago.

Although these specimens had Neanderthal features, DNA analysis has to date failed to generate any concrete evidence that the Neanderthals contributed to our gene pool.