The Neanderthal is named after the Neandertal valley, which is located about 12 km east of Düsseldorf, Germany and where a fossil was discovered n 1856 which was known as the "Neanderthal skull" or "Neanderthal cranium" in anthropological literature, and the individual reconstructed on the basis of the skull was called the "Neanderthal man".
Photo of a recontructed face of a Neanderthal child from the Anthropological Institute, University of Zürich
Researchers Liubov Vitaliena Golovanova and Vladimir Borisovich Doronichev of the ANO Laboratory of Prehistory in St. Petersburg, have offered the hypothesis "(T)hat the Neanderthal demise occurred abruptly(on a geological time-scale) … after the most powerful volcanic activity in western Eurasia during the period of Neanderthal evolutionary history,” the researchers write. “[T]his catastrophe not only drastically destroyed the ecological niches of Neanderthal populations but also caused their mass physical depopulation.”
There are many Neanderthal extinction hypotheses about how Neanderthals disappeared around 30,000 years ago, and there have also been many heated debates over the years about the Neanderthals' place in the human family tree. At varying, different times they were classified as a separate species Homo neanderthalensis and also as a subspecies of Homo sapiens, called Homo sapiens neanderthalensis.
“These extinction hypotheses include the inability to cope with climate change, competitive exclusion or even genocide by anatomically modern humans, and hybridization, effectively being absorbed into the Cro-Magnon population.”
Researchers have also debated whether Neanderthals were an entirely separate species, and recent evidence suggests that they probably weren’t. Some people even question whether Neanderthals are really extinct, as they still live on in our genes, I certainly feel that I’ve met a few Neanderthals in my life, and of course I mean that as a compliment. Recently researchers have produced the first whole genome sequence of the 3 billion letters in the Neanderthal genome, and the initial analysis suggests that up to 2 percent of the DNA in the genome of present-day humans outside of Africa originated in Neanderthals or in Neanderthals' ancestors. See http://www.genome.gov/27539119
There is evidence that as well as being strong, hairy and predatory, Neanderthals were far from stupid, and were creative, innovative thinkers. Like Homo sapiens, childbirth was also difficult for Neanderthals because they had a brain at birth of a similar size to that of modern-day babies. However, after birth, their brain grew more quickly than it does for Homo sapiens and became larger too and the individual lifespan ran just as slowly as it does for modern human beings. It is estimated that gene flow from Neanderthals to humans first occurred between 80,000 and 50,000 years ago (ScienceDaily May, 2010) .
The Climate Change hypothesis about Neanderthal extinction proposes that a series of major volcanic eruptions 40,000 years BC, affected the region between Italy and the Caucasus Mountains, and may have drastically reduced the Neanderthals’ food supply and challenged their innovative but primarily predatory hunting skills, as they were possibly carnivorous apex or alpha predators, residing at the top of the food chain though there is recent evidence that suggests that they were omnivorous, either way fewer plants meant less food.
Golovanova and Doronichev studied the sedimentary layers at Mezmaiskaya Cave in the Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia, which is a site rich in Neanderthal bones and artifacts. These studies suggest a severe reduction of plant pollen at a time corresponding with the volcanic eruptions. This damage to plant life would have caused a drastic corresponding decline in the plant-eating mammals that were hunted by the Neanderthals. It is also an indication of a sudden shift to a much cooler and dryer climate change.
The second of the two volcanic eruptions coincided with the end of Neanderthal presence at Mezmaiskaya. Many Neanderthal bones, stone tools, and skeletal remains of their prey animals were found in the sedimentary layers beneath the second volcanic ash deposit, but none above it. Modern humans are thought to have also existed in this area and would have been very adversely affected too but if they died out they were replaced later by those Homo sapiens who survived more or less unscathed in Eastern Asia and Southern Africa. These would have then migrated into the vacuum left by the nearly extinct Neanderthals in Eurasia, once the climate conditions had improved.
The researchers stress that more research data from other areas in Eurasia is needed to support the volcanic climate change hypothesis, however they believe that the Mezmaiskaya cave has delivered some important supporting evidence for the idea of Neanderthal extinction caused by non-anthropogenic climate change.