Archaeologists are trying to understand the reasons for the mysterious disappearance of the Neanderthals

(ORDO NEWS) — Coals from ancient fires and stalagmites in caves provide clues to the mysterious disappearance of Neanderthals from Europe.

For over 350,000 years, Neanderthals inhabited Europe and Asia until they suddenly disappeared about 40,000 years ago. This happened around the same time that the anatomically modern Homo sapiens emerged from Africa.

With their characteristic sloping forehead, large pelvis and wide nose, Neanderthals left behind one of the greatest mysteries of human evolution.

They lived during the Middle and Late Pleistocene era, about 400,000-40,000 years ago. Neanderthals lived in Eurasia, traces of them are found as far north as modern Belgium and as far south as the Mediterranean and southwestern Asia.

They were not the only kind of hominids (humanoid creatures) that existed on the planet at that time. Other archaic human groups also walked the earth, such as Homo floresiensis and the Denisovans.

At the time of the Neanderthals, there were several types of people, and suddenly 40,000 years ago all of them disappeared, except for one, says Professor Stefano Benazzi from the University of Bologna, Italy.

He is a physical anthropologist and directs the SUCCESS project funded by the Horizon project to investigate the earliest migration of Homo sapiens in Italy. It is important to understand what happened, he said.

We already know more about Neanderthals than other extinct humans, thanks to thousands of artifacts and fossils that have been unearthed, as well as a few near-complete skeletons.

There are a number of competing theories about why Neanderthals disappeared, such as climate change, Homo sapiens aggression, possible competition for resources, or even that Neanderthals disappeared due to interbreeding with Homo sapiens. Some human populations living today in Europe and Asia contain up to 3% of Neanderthal DNA.

Benazzi was researching what happened to Neanderthals in Italy around the time Homo sapiens arrived from Africa.

There are many (dated) archaeological sites in Italy, and we have a good overview of the different (technological) cultures that fall within the time period we are interested in,” he said.

A number of scientists argue that climate change may have pushed the Neanderthals to extinction. While this may have been true elsewhere, it was different in Italy, Benazzi explained.

The SUCCESS project analyzed pollen from paleolake (ancient lake) cores using minerals collected from ancient stalactites. These calcium icicles that hang in caves are actually climate time machines, and researchers can decipher what the climate was like when they formed.

With this approach, the SUCCESS project has made it possible to reconstruct the paleoclimate (prehistoric climate) between 40 and 60,000 years ago. Unlike the analysis of the ice core from Greenland, there was no data in Italy pointing to catastrophic climate change, which could hardly have led to the death of Neanderthals.

They closely studied the period of about 3,000 years when Neanderthal and human populations could coexist, excavating seven places where they once lived. They studied cultural and tool-making differences between the last Neanderthals and the first Homo sapiens in Italy.

Homo sapiens in Italy used specific types of technology, including artifacts such as shell ornaments and projectiles such as arrowheads. In fact, SUCCESS has found the earliest evidence of mechanical projectile weapons in Europe.

Neanderthals would have been at a huge disadvantage compared to their relatives Homo sapiens in terms of weapon technology. However, this meeting in Italy might not have happened.

Newly discovered remains in Southern Europe show that at least one Neanderthal was alive 44,000 years ago, while the oldest remains of Homo sapiens date back to 43,000 years ago. It’s possible they overlapped, but none of the contemporary evidence shows that, Benazzi said.

Each region is different. The result we get here (in Italy) does not mean we will get the same results elsewhere,” he said.

As part of the PALEOCHAR project, Carolina Mallol, a geoarchaeologist at the University of La Laguna in Spain and currently a visiting professor at the University of California at Davis in the United States, is raking through the ashes of time, looking for traces of Neanderthal life and hints of their death.

The goal is to study microscopic and molecular charred matter from ancient fire deposits to see what organic material they left behind.

The archaeologist’s difficulty is that the human world is organic and we can’t get to it,” says Mallol, who studies Neanderthal sites such as El Salt and Abrik del Pastor in Spain.

When organic matter such as meat or plants is thrown into a fire, the heat dehydrates them, eventually destroying DNA and proteins. But fat molecules called lipids can survive if the fire is not heated above 350°C, as Mallol and his colleagues showed in their research.

‘PALEOCHAR was designed to explore how far we can go with analytical methods to squeeze molecular information out of organic black layers (on fire)’, she said.

Paleolipidomics (the study of ancient fats) has been used to study lipids in Roman amphoras, Egyptian mummies, and even prehistoric leaves.

When it comes to ancient human deposits, “we are the first to apply (these methods) systematically,” she said. They also expand the list of known lipid biomarkers, which are like molecular “barcodes” characteristic of species, families, or even metabolic pathways.

With the help of biomarkers, it is possible to distinguish herbivores from carnivores, conifers from angiosperms,” ​​she said.

Mallol and colleagues created the world’s first laboratory, AMBILAB, which stands for Archaeological Micromorphology and Biomarker Research Laboratory, located in Tenerife, Spain, which trains researchers in soil micromorphology and lipid biomarker analysis.

Questions about Neanderthals, such as why they went extinct, are very ambitious, Mallol says. These questions require you to first determine who they were and how they lived, having a lot of information – and we don’t have it yet,” she said.

With each new piece of information, archaeologists and scientists delve deeper into the mystery of why our closest relatives suddenly disappeared, and Homo sapiens managed to survive.


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