Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Neandertals "Doomed" to Extinction?

Yes, according to Clive Finlayson, an ecologist. In a story in Sindhtoday, the argument is put forth that:

Finlayson argues that it was a deadly combination of bad luck and climate change that caused the demise of the Neanderthals.

They were a species caught in the wrong place at the wrong time in a rapidly changing world, he said. “By the time the classic Neanderthals had emerged, they were already a people doomed to extinction,” he said.

A series of ice ages ate away the forest habitats where Neanderthals and their predecessors, Homo heidelbergensis, made a living sneaking up on big game. As their numbers declined, those who remained took refuge in warmer parts of Europe, nearer the Mediterranean. But, a final drop in temperatures that began around 50,000 years ago made even this meager living unsustainable.

Here's the problem that I have with this interpretation: Neandertals appear in the fossil record around 100-150 ky BP and are even found in Southwest Asia around 125 Ky BP (Zuttiyeh). The early Würm glaciation begins around 110 Ky BP and goes roughly up until 34-37 Ky BP. Are we really to believe that for some 70 thousand years, Neandertals adapted to the landscape just fine and then, suddenly, couldn't cut the mustard? It is much more likely that their disappearance had something to do with the arrival of modern humans around 35-40 ky BP. The Aurignacian first appears in the Balkans, at Bacho Kiro Cave around 43 ky and, whether one wants to go the admixture route, the assimilation route or the replacement route, there was clearly contact there and it clearly had an effect on the local Neandertal populations. Maybe he writes about this in the forthcoming (assumedly) paper but nothing of that is clear from this story.

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