Neanderthals of Western Mediterranean Did Not Become Extinct Because of Changes in Climate

Related Articles

Related Articles

Homo Neanderthaliensis did not become extinct because of changes in climate. At least, this did not happen to the several Neanderthals groups that lived in the western Mediterranean 42,000 years ago.

A research group of the University of Bologna came to this conclusion after a detailed paleoclimatic reconstruction of the last ice age through the analysis of stalagmites sampled from some caves in Apulia, Italy.

The researchers focused on the Murge karst plateau in Apulia, where Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens coexisted for at least 3,000 years, from approximately 45,000 to 42,000 years ago. Data extracted from the stalagmites showed that climate changes that happened during that time span were not particularly significant. “Our study shows that this area of Apulia appears as a ‘climate niche’ during the transition from Neanderthals to Homo Sapiens” explains Andrea Columbu, researcher and first author of this study. “It doesn’t seem possible that significant climate changes happened during that period, at least not impactful enough to cause the extinction of Neanderthals in Apulia and, by the same token, in similar areas of the Mediterranean”.

 

The climate change hypothesis

The hypothesis that a changing climate was a factor in Neanderthals extinction (that happened, in Europe, nearly 42,000 years ago) found considerable support among the scientific community. According to this theory, during the last ice age, sharp and rapid changes in climate were a decisive factor in Neanderthals’ extinction because of the increasingly cold and dry weather.

We can find confirmation of these sharp changes in the analysis of ice cores from Greenland and from other paleoclimatic archives of continental Europe. However, when it comes to some Mediterranean areas where Neanderthals had lived since 100,000 years ago, the data tell a different story. The Western Mediterranean is rich in prehistorical findings and, until now, no one ever carried out a paleoclimatic reconstruction of these Neanderthals-occupied areas.

The importance of stalagmites

Where to find answers about the climate past of the Western Mediterranean? The research group of the University of Bologna turned to the Murge plateau in Apulia. “Apulia is key to our understanding of anthropological movements: we know that both Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens lived there approximately 45,000 years ago”, says Andrea Columbu. “Very few other areas in the world saw both species co-existing in a relatively small space. This makes the Murge plateau the perfect place to study the climate and the bio-cultural grounds of the transition from Neanderthal to Sapiens”.

How is it possible to provide a climate reconstruction of such a remote period? Stalagmites have the answer. These rock formations rise from the floor of karst caves thanks to ceiling water drippings. “Stalagmites are excellent paleoclimatic and paleoenvironmental archives”, explains Jo De Waele, research coordinator and professor at the University of Bologna. “Since stalagmites form through rainwater dripping, they provide unquestionable evidence of the presence or absence of rain. Moreover, they are made of calcite, which contains carbon and oxygen isotopes. The latter provide precise information about how the soil was and how much it rained during the formation period of stalagmites. We can then cross these pieces of information with radiometric dating, that provide an extremely precise reconstruction of the phases of stalagmites’ formation”.

A (relatively) stable climate

The pace at which stalagmites formed is the first significant result of this study. Researchers found out that Apulian stalagmites showed a consistent pace of dripping in the last and previous ice ages. This means that no abrupt change in climate happened during the millennia under investigation. A draught would have been visible in the stalagmites.

Among all the stalagmites that were analysed, one was particularly relevant. Researchers sampled this 50-cm long stalagmite in the Pozzo Cucù cave, in the Castellana Grotte area (Bari) and they carried out 27 high-precision datings and 2,700 analyses of carbon and oxygen stable isotopes. According to dating, this stalagmite formed between 106,000 and 27,000 years ago. This stalagmite represents the longest timeline of the last ice age in the western Mediterranean and in Europe. Moreover, this stalagmite did not show any trace of abrupt changes in climate that might have caused Neanderthals’ extinction.

“The analyses we carried out show little variation in rainfall between 50,000 and 27,000 years ago, the extent of this variation is not enough to cause alterations in the flora inhabiting the environment above the cave”, says Jo De Waele. “Carbon isotopes show that the bio-productivity of the soil remained all in all consistent during this period that includes the 3,000 years-long coexistence between Sapiens and Neanderthals. This means that significant changes in flora and thus in climate did not happen”.

The technology hypothesis

The results seem to show that the dramatic changes in the climate of the last ice age had a different impact on the Mediterranean area than in continental Europe and Greenland. This may rule out the hypothesis that climate changes are responsible for Neanderthals dying out.

How do we explain their extinction after a few millennia of coexistence with Homo Sapiens? Stefano Benazzi, a palaeontologist at the University of Bologna and one of the authors of the paper, provides an answer to this question. “The results we obtained corroborate the hypothesis, put forward by many scholars, that the extinction of Neanderthals had to do with technology”, says Benazzi. “According to this hypothesis, the Homo Sapiens hunted using a technology that was far more advanced than Neanderthals’, and this represented a primary reason to Sapiens’ supremacy over Neanderthals, that eventually became extinct after 3,000 years of co-existence”.

The authors of the study

The study was published in Nature Ecology & Evolution with the title “Speleothem record attests to stable environmental conditions during Neanderthal- modern human turnover in southern Italy”. Representing the University of Bologna, we have Andrea Columbu, Veronica Chiarini and Jo De Waele from the Department of Biological, Geological and Environmental Sciences, and Stefano Benazzi from the Department of Cultural Heritage.

Other scholars also participated in the study: from the University of Innsbruck (Austria) where the isotopic analyses were carried out, from Melbourne University (Australia) and Xi’an Jiaotong University (China), that carried out the radiometric dating.

Grotte di Castellana, the Apulian Speleology Association and, for the major part, local speleology groups provided funding for this study.

UNIVERSITÀ DI BOLOGNA

Header Image Credit : Public Domain

Download the HeritageDaily mobile application on iOS and Android

More on this topic

LATEST NEWS

Some Dinosaurs Could Fly Before They Were Birds

New research using the most comprehensive study of feathered dinosaurs and early birds has revised the evolutionary relationships of dinosaurs at the origin of birds.

Searching the Ancient Depths of a Reptilian Genome Yields Insight into all Vertebrates

Scientists searching the most ancient corners of the genome of a reptile native to New Zealand found patterns that help explain how the genomes of all vertebrates took shape, according to a recently published study.

Researchers Unlock Secrets of the Past With New International Carbon Dating Standard

Radiocarbon dating is set to become more accurate than ever after an international team of scientists improved the technique for assessing the age of historical objects.

New Findings Dispel the View That Australia’s First Peoples Were ‘Only Hunter Gatherers’

Archaeologists at The Australian National University (ANU) have found the earliest evidence of Indigenous communities cultivating bananas in Australia.

Bones Recently Found on the Isle of Wight Belong to a New Species of Theropod Dinosaur

A new study by Palaeontologists at the University of Southampton suggests four bones recently found on the Isle of Wight belong to new species of theropod dinosaur, the group that includes Tyrannosaurus rex and modern-day birds.

Cremation in the Middle-East Dates as Far Back as 7,000 B.C.

The gender of the human remains found inside a cremation pyre pit in Beisamoun, Israel remains unknown. What is known is that the individual was a young adult injured by a flint projectile several months prior to their death in spring some 9,000 years ago.

Academics Develop New Method to Determine the Origin of Stardust in Meteorites

Meteorites are critical to understanding the beginning of our solar system and how it has evolved over time.

Primate Voice Boxes are Evolving at a Rapid Pace

Scientists have discovered that the larynx, or voice box, of primates is significantly larger relative to body size, has greater variation, and is under faster rates of evolution than in other mammals.

Popular stories

Port Royal – The Sodom of the New World

Port Royal, originally named Cagway was an English harbour town and base of operations for buccaneers and privateers (pirates) until the great earthquake of 1692.

Matthew Hopkins – The Real Witch-Hunter

Matthew Hopkins was an infamous witch-hunter during the 17th century, who published “The Discovery of Witches” in 1647, and whose witch-hunting methods were applied during the notorious Salem Witch Trials in colonial Massachusetts.

Did Corn Fuel Cahokia’s Rise?

A new study suggests that corn was the staple subsistence crop that allowed the pre-Columbian city of Cahokia to rise to prominence and flourish for nearly 300 years.

The Real Dracula?

“Dracula”, published in 1897 by the Irish Author Bram Stoker, introduced audiences to the infamous Count and his dark world of sired vampiric minions.