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Did volcanoes wipe out Neanderthals?

Oct. 1, 2010
Courtesy of Current Anthropology
and World Science staff

Cli­mate change fol­low­ing huge vol­can­ic erup­tions may have driv­en the Ne­an­der­thal peo­ple to ex­tinc­tion and cleared the way for mod­ern hu­mans to thrive in Eur­a­sia, two sci­en­tists say.

The re­search­ers, with the ANO Lab­o­r­a­to­ry of Prehisto­ry in St. Pe­ters­burg, Rus­sia, pro­pose the idea in a re­search pa­per the Oc­to­ber is­sue of the jour­nal Cur­rent An­thro­po­l­ogy, but stress that more da­ta is needed.

Ne­an­der­thal set­tle around a camp­fire in this artist's con­cep­tion. Cli­mate change fol­low­ing huge vol­can­ic erup­tions may have driv­en the Ne­an­der­thal peo­ple to ex­tinc­tion and cleared the way for mod­ern hu­mans to thrive in Eur­a­sia, a new study sug­gests. (Image Cour­te­sy NASA)


“[W]e of­fer the hy­poth­e­sis that the Ne­an­der­thal de­mise oc­curred ab­ruptly (on a ge­o­log­i­cal time-scale) … af­ter the most pow­er­ful vol­can­ic ac­ti­vity in west­ern Eur­a­sia dur­ing the pe­ri­od of Ne­an­der­thal ev­o­lu­tion­ary histo­ry,” wrote the sci­en­tists, Li­ubov Vi­tal­iena Golo­va­no­va and Vlad­i­mir Boriso­vich Doro­ni­chev.

Ne­an­der­thals were a ro­bust breed of early hu­man rel­a­tives, which died out af­ter an­a­tom­ic­ally mod­ern hu­mans moved in­to Eu­rope and Asia around 40,000 years ago. The­o­ries have im­pli­cat­ed mod­ern hu­mans in the Ne­an­der­thals’ de­mise, but the is­sue re­mains un­set­tled.

The new study suggests many of the stocky cave men may have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Ev­i­dence for vol­can­ic dis­as­ter comes from Mez­mais­kaya cave in south­ern Rus­sia’s Cau­ca­sus Moun­tains, Golo­va­no­va and Doro­ni­chev said, a site rich in Ne­an­der­thal bones and ar­ti­facts. Re­cent ex­cava­t­ions of the ca­ve, they ex­plained, re­vealed two dis­tinct lay­ers of vol­can­ic ash that co­in­cide with ma­jor erup­tions around 40,000 years ago.

Ge­o­log­i­cal lay­ers con­tain­ing the ash­es al­so show very low pol­len lev­els, an in­dica­t­ion of a dra­mat­ic shift to a cool­er and dry­er cli­mate, they added. Fur­ther, the sec­ond erup­tion seems to mark the end of Ne­an­der­thal pres­ence at Mez­maiskaya. Many Ne­an­der­thal bones, stone tools, and bones of prey an­i­mals have turned up in the earth be­low the sec­ond ash de­pos­it, but none above it.

The ash lay­ers cor­re­spond to what is known as the Cam­pa­nian Ig­n­imbrite super-e­rup­tion some 40,000 years ago in It­a­ly, and a smaller erup­tion thought to have oc­curred around the same time in the Cau­ca­sus Moun­tains. The re­search­ers ar­gue that these erup­tions caused a “vol­can­ic win­ter” as ash clouds ob­scured the sun, pos­sibly for years, kill­ing off an­i­mals and radic­ally al­ter­ing ecosys­tems.

An­thro­po­l­o­gists have long puz­zled over the dis­ap­pear­ance of the Ne­an­der­thals and the ap­par­ently con­cur­rent rise of mod­ern hu­mans. Was there some sort of ad­van­tage that helped early mod­ern hu­mans out-compete their doomed cousins? 

The new re­search sug­gests the ad­van­tage may have been sim­ple loca­t­ion, ac­cord­ing to the au­thors.

“Early mod­erns in­i­tially oc­cu­pied the more south­ern parts of west­ern Eur­a­sia and Af­ri­ca and thus avoided much of the di­rect im­pact” of the blasts, they wrote. And while ad­vanc­es in hunt­ing and so­cial struc­ture clearly helped mod­ern hu­mans as they moved north, they al­so “may have fur­ther ben­e­fit­ed from the Ne­an­der­thal popula­t­ion vac­u­um in Eu­rope.”


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Climate change following huge volcanic eruptions may have driven the Neanderthal people to extinction and cleared the way for modern humans to thrive in Eurasia, some scientists say, Researchers with the ANO Laboratory of Prehistory in St. Petersburg, Russia, propose the idea in a research paper the October issue of the journal Current Anthropology, but stress that more data is needed. “[W]e offer the hypothesis that the Neanderthal demise occurred abruptly (on a geological time-scale) … after the most powerful volcanic activity in western Eurasia during the period of Neanderthal evolutionary history,” wrote the scientists, Liubov Vitaliena Golovanova and Vladimir Borisovich Doronichev. Neanderthals were a robust breed of early human relatives, which died out after anatomically modern humans moved into Europe and Asia around 40,000 years ago. Theories have implicated modern humans in the Neanderthals’ demise, but the issue remains unsettled. Evidence for volcanic disaster comes from Mezmaiskaya cave in southern Russia’s Caucasus Mountains, Golovanova and Doronichev said, a site rich in Neanderthal bones and artifacts. Recent excavations of the cave, they explained, revealed two distinct layers of volcanic ash that coincide with major eruptions around 40,000 years ago. Geological layers containing the ashes also show signs of abrupt climate change, they added, showing very low pollen levels, an indication of a dramatic shift to a cooler and dryer climate. Further, the second eruption seems to mark the end of Neanderthal presence at Mezmaiskaya. Many Neanderthal bones, stone tools, and bones of prey animals have turned up in the earth below the second ash deposit, but none above it. The ash layers correspond to what is known as the Campanian Ignimbrite super-eruption some 40,000 years ago in Italy, and a smaller eruption thought to have occurred around the same time in the Caucasus Mountains. The researchers argue that these eruptions caused a “volcanic winter” as ash clouds obscured the sun, possibly for years, killing off animals and radically altering ecosystems. Anthropologists have long puzzled over the disappearance of the Neanderthals and the apparently concurrent rise of modern humans. Was there some sort of advantage that helped early modern humans out-compete their doomed cousins? The new research suggests the advantage may have been simple location, according to the authors. “Early moderns initially occupied the more southern parts of western Eurasia and Africa and thus avoided much of the direct impact” of the blasts, they wrote. And while advances in hunting and social structure clearly helped modern humans as they moved north, they also “may have further benefited from the Neanderthal population vacuum in Europe.”