A new archaeological investigation delves into the mysterious disappearance of the Neanderthals |  Science


Neanderthals inhabited Europe and Asia for more than 350,000 years, until, suddenly by evolutionary standards, they disappeared around 40,000 years ago. This happened more or less at the same time as the appearance in Africa of the Homo sapiensthe first anatomically modern human being.

With their characteristic sloping forehead, large pelvis, and wide nose, Neanderthals leave behind one of the great mysteries of human evolution. They lived during the Middle and Late Pleistocene epoch, from about 400,000 years ago to about 40,000 years ago. Neanderthals lived in Eurasia and traces of their presence have been found from the north, in what is now Belgium, to the south, in the Mediterranean and Southwest Asia.

However, they were not the only hominins (human-like species) in existence on Earth at the time. Other archaic human groups, such as the Homo floresiensis and the Denisovans, also inhabited our planet. The genetic study of all these different populations of humans, paleogenomics, led to Svante Pääbo receiving the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology last week. But now new forms of study are opening up, such as ashes and stalagmites.

“In the time of the Neanderthals there were several human species and suddenly, 40,000 years ago, all but one disappeared,” explains Stefano Benazzi, a professor at the University of Bologna (Italy). Benazzi is a physical anthropologist and directs the Horizon-funded SUCCESS project, which investigates the earliest migrations of the Homo sapiens in Italy. “It’s important to understand what happened,” she says.

Thanks to the thousands of objects and fossils found in archaeological excavations, as well as the several almost complete skeletons that are preserved, we know more about Neanderthals than about any other extinct human species. And there are numerous hypotheses about the disappearance of the Neanderthals: some point to climate change, others to clashes with Homo sapiens, to a possible competition for resources or even to the fact that they disappeared when mating with them. Some human populations living in Europe and Asia today have up to 3% Neanderthal DNA.

Benazzi has investigated what happened to Neanderthals in Italy around the time the Homo sapiens came from Africa. “In Italy we have many (dated) archaeological sites and we have a good insight into the different (technological) cultures that existed in this period in question,” he says. Several specialists maintain that climate change could have driven Neanderthals to extinction. While this may be true elsewhere, it is not in Italy, Benazzi notes.

“Those questions [sobre cómo se extinguieron] They require that we first determine who they were and how they lived, and for this a lot of information is needed that we do not yet have”

Carolina Mallol, geoarchaeologist at the University of La Laguna

The SUCCESS project was able to analyze granules from the cores of paleolakes (prehistoric lakes) by extracting minerals from prehistoric stalactites. These calcareous formations that hang from the ceiling of the caves are, in effect, climatic time machines, which allow the research staff to know what the climate was like at the time they formed.

As a result, the project reconstructed the paleoclimate (prehistoric climate) between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago. Unlike the findings from the analysis of ice cores in Greenland, there was no data indicating devastating climate change in Italy, so it was unlikely that this would have caused the Neanderthals to go extinct.

The project’s research staff closely examined a period of about 3,000 years in which populations of Neanderthals and humans could coexist, excavating seven sites in which these species inhabited. He investigated the cultural and tool-making differences between the last Neanderthals and the first Homo sapiens in Italy.

The Homo sapiens that inhabited Italy used specific types of technology, including objects, such as shell ornaments, and projectiles, such as arrowheads. In fact, in the framework of the SUCCESS project, the first signs of mechanically launched projectile weapons were found in Europe.

weapon disparity

Neanderthals would have been at a serious disadvantage compared to their relatives Homo sapiens in terms of weapons technology. However, such an encounter between species may never have occurred in Italy.

Remains recently discovered in southern Europe confirm that at least one Neanderthal specimen existed 44,000 years ago, while the oldest remains of Homo sapiens They are from 43,000 years ago. They may have coincided, but none of the current evidence proves it, says Benazzi. Every region is different. “The fact of obtaining certain results here [en Italia] it does not imply that the same results are obtained in other places”, he points out.

Within the framework of the PALEOCHAR project, Carolina Mallol, a geoarchaeologist at the University of La Laguna (Tenerife) and currently a visiting professor at UC Davis (United States), is examining the ashes of time, looking for traces of Neanderthal life and signs of his disappearance. The objective is to study the microscopic and molecular carbonized matter of sediments from prehistoric fires, to see what organic material they have left behind.

“The disadvantage of archaeologists is that the human world is organic and we cannot delve into it,” says Mallol, who studies Neanderthal sites such as El Salt and Abric del Pastor in Spain. When organic matter, such as meat or plants, is thrown into a fire, the heat dehydrates it, eventually destroying its DNA and protein. But fatty molecules called lipids can survive if the fire does not reach more than about 350 ° C, as Mallol and the other members of the project show in their research.

“PALEOCHAR was conceived to discover the scope of analytical techniques in extracting molecular information from organic black layers [de los fuegos]”, he points. Paleolipidomics (the study of prehistoric fats) has been used to study lipids from Roman amphorae, Egyptian mummies, and even prehistoric leaves. Regarding prehistoric human sediments, Mallol notes that his group is “the first to apply [estas técnicas] systematically,” he says. The team is also expanding on known lipid biomarkers, which are like molecular “barcodes” specific to species, families, or even metabolic pathways.

“With biomarkers, herbivores can be distinguished from carnivores, and conifers from angiosperms”, he indicates.

Mallol and his team created the world’s first AMBILAB (Archaeological Micromorphology and Biomarkers Research Laboratory), based in Tenerife, which trains research staff in soil micromorphology techniques and lipid biomarker analysis. Questions about Neanderthals, such as why they went extinct, are very ambitious, in Mallol’s opinion. “Those questions require first determining who they were and how they lived, and that requires a lot of information that we don’t yet have,” he says.

With each new piece of information, the scientific community and archeology specialists deepen the mystery of why our closest relatives suddenly disappeared while the Homo sapiens managed to survive.

The research referred to in this article has been funded through the European Research Council of the EU and the article was originally published in Horizonthe Journal of Research and Innovation of the European Union.

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