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Climate Change May Have Sealed Neanderthals’ Fate

USF researcher produces ancient climate reconstruction through isotopic testing

A reconstruction of a Neanderthal. Image Copyright: Neanderthal Museum, Germany

A recent study from an international group of researchers is shedding new light on what may have contributed to the disappearance of Neanderthals tens-of-thousands of years ago.

An ancient climate reconstruction produced by University of South Florida Professor Bogdan P. Onac, PhD, in collaboration with researchers from around the world, gives a first-of-its-kind look into the very cold, dry climate Neanderthals were dealing with in Europe between 44,000 and 40,000 years ago.

It has been postulated, even before our study, that there was a possibility that climate impacted the disappearance of Neanderthals, but there was no proof of that,” said Onac, a paleoclimatologist in USF’s School of Geosciences. Now, we have this detailed paleoclimatic record that shows these very, very cold and arid periods in the East-Central Europe.”

A large chamber inside Tausoare Cave in northern Romania. For this study, researchers took samples from stalagmites inside this cave. Credit: C.T. Theodorescu

According to researchers, these series of cold phases correspond with archeological periods when all cave shelters used by prehistoric humans are devoid of artifacts. After these time periods, scientists began to see the reemergence of ancient human artifacts in these regions but nothing from Neanderthals – a sign that appears to signal the species demise.

The study's co-author, Vasile Ersek, inside Ascunsa Cave in southwest Romania. Researchers used samples from stalagmites in the cave to determine climate history for the area. Credit: Bogdan Onac

The question of what happened to Neanderthals has been debated by scientists since the first discovery of the species in the mid-1800s. Our evolutionary cousins” of sorts, Neanderthals went extinct just a few thousand years after our species, Homo sapiens, arrived in Europe from Africa. While the two species lived among one another for a time, many believe that competition for resources and territory between them led to the downfall of Neanderthals. However, this new research, led by Michael Staubwasser at the University of Cologne and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows changing climate likely played a significant role.

While the data helps piece together the puzzle of what happened to Neanderthals, it also fills a gap in Europe’s climate history. It’s the first-time scientists have been able to develop climate data for East-Central Europe during this particular time period (Greenland Stadial 10, 11 & 12). Onac analyzed stalagmite samples from two caves – one near the Danube Valley and the other from the northern part of the Carpathian Mountains in Romania. By examining the oxygen and carbon isotopic composition of the samples, Onac was able to determine the climate conditions of this ancient time period.

The fact that we can come out with results that are pushing science forward is incredible,” Onac said. It’s a great challenge and very rewarding outcome when one can provide additional clues to help answering such scientific puzzles.”

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