The detective story began at Cambridge University seven years ago, when Tjeerd van Andel and a team of paleoclimatologists started combing through environmental and archaeological data to try to solve an old mystery: Why did Neanderthals vanish from Europe 28,000 years ago? Researchers had assumed they died out because they weren’t as smart or as good at manipulating tools as modern humans. Van Andel came up with a different explanation: bad weather. The animals Neanderthals hunted—mostly bison and giant deer—died off from extreme climate change.
Between 60,000 and 20,000 years ago, Europe became drier and experienced rapid phases of warming and cooling. “If you have very quick changes, that wipes out the trees,” Van Andel says. With less vegetation to eat, large herd animals could not survive. Suddenly, the Neanderthals’ hunting method—running after prey animals and stabbing them with a spear—no longer worked. The smaller game taking over the continent simply outran them.
Van Andel pieced this story together after discovering that the Aurignacians, a culturally similar group of modern humans who lived alongside the Neanderthals, disappeared around the same time. They, too, hunted with spears. But while the Neanderthals died out completely, some of the modern humans survived by developing the bow and arrow and the throwing spear.
There appears to be no physical reason that Neanderthals could not have used those technologies as well. Recent analysis of Neanderthal hand bones by Wes Niewoehner of California State University shows they had the manual dexterity to produce and use complex tools. His analysis raises questions about why Neanderthals were not able to copy the new hunting methods.
The ultimate fate of the Neanderthals still remains a mystery. Some archaeologists have suggested that they were absorbed into the population of modern humans. A recent study by Katerina Harvati of New York University that compares the skull morphology of Neanderthals and modern humans suggests, however, that Neanderthals did not make a significant contribution to the modern human gene pool. If Harvati is right, the last Neanderthals may have starved to death on the fringes of Europe as more efficient groups of modern human hunters invaded their territory and ultimately became masters of the world.