Lack of Winter Coat Kills Neanderthals (ca. 20,000 BC)

By: The Scribe on Thursday, July 19, 2007


It was around 20,000 years ago – give or take several thousand years, of course – that the species of people known as Neanderthals breathed their last. Although they had co-existed for thousands of years with what are referred to as “modern humans”, scientists have been perplexed for decades as to why humans survived and Neanderthals died out. Everything from genocide to technology to social organization has been suggested, however more recent evidence seems to point to a much simpler explanation: they were just too cold… and a little too stubborn.

It seems that Neanderthals’ inability to adapt to climate change led to a breakdown of subsistence patterns and technological advances, which meant that they refused to alter their hunting patterns when the large game animals they were used to hunting eventually fled south. The colder temperatures saw migrations of bison, red deer, and other large animals, and the surrounding vegetation slowly began to disappear. The previously lush environment of Europe soon became a sparse steppe with patches of desert, incapable of supporting more plant life and thus no longer providing hunters with the forest vegetation they had previously relied on to sneak up on their prey.

Without camouflage, stalking wild game became much trickier – and while modern humans adapted their technology to make use of a wider range of resources, Neanderthals simply did not manage to develop the skills needed to survive in a half-steppe, half-desert environment. Even though Neanderthals typically didn’t live past their 30s, as revealed through skeletal evidence, the new hunting environment was much more harsh and treacherous.

As the success rates for hunts dropped, so did the food supply – and in return, the mortality rates quickly increased. As people ate less, they became more susceptible to illness and reproduction dropped significantly; as the Neanderthals slowly starved to death, fewer babies were born and the population numbers began to dwindle.

Realistically, Neanderthals possessed the same level of cold resistance as modern humans, so it wasn’t the temperature that directly led to the species’ demise. Both Neanderthals and modern humans had mastered fire and made similar tools, cared for their sick, and had elaborate ritual practices and a developed appreciation for art. Instead, the Neanderthals’ demise resulted from an inability to change and adapt as the climate forced them to – whether this was a deliberate attempt to cling to tradition or a physical incapability remains unknown.

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