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Neanderthals already headed to extinction before modern humans appeared

A look at tools used by Neanderthals on what is now the Iberian peninsula offers clues into their disappearance.

(CN) — Neanderthals vanished from the world some 40,000 years ago and experts are still trying to unravel the mysteries behind their disappearance. Despite being a famed and often instinctive image when we imagine ancient humans, there are crucial questions on the nature of Neanderthals we have yet to resolve.

Experts have yet to identify when exactly Neanderthals branched off from homo sapiens — the modern version of us — and what caused them to disappear from the planet tens of thousands of years ago. Scientists have suggested inbreeding, diseases tearing through isolated populations and an inability to adapt to changing climates all played a role, but definitive answers elude researchers.

While these questions will likely pester scientists for years to come, a new study suggests a good look into Neanderthal tools might offer some fresh hope in their quest for answers.

The study, published Wednesday in the journal PLoS ONE and led by Joseba Rios-Garaizar of the Archaeological Museum of Bilbao, Spain, reveals experts looked into remains from a tool complex known as the Châtelperronian around the northern Iberian Peninsula in, an area that today includes Spain and Portugal.

Experts looked at over 5,000 remains of Châtelperronian tools — mostly stone instruments with strategically placed notches and edges — that dated back nearly 45,000 years ago. For some time, many doubted Neanderthals were the original designers of the Châtelperronian tools, but recent efforts have helped soothe those doubts.

“However, recent technical developments have significantly advanced these discussions by presenting paleoproteomic evidence for Neandertal authorship of the Châtelperronian at Arcy-sur-Cure,” the researchers wrote in the study. “The fact that the only human remains directly dated within the Châtelperronian age range in Western Europe have Neandertal affinities further strengthens this link.”

With the origins of the tools clarified, experts then compared them to other nearby tool sites in an effort to understand how the Neanderthals fared in their final years.

Their findings presented some interesting observations. For one, experts noticed the Châtelperronian tools did not overlap with other tool systems in the region, suggesting the new systems may have migrated into the region later. But they also discovered that the Châtelperronian tools predated any of the tools brought into the Iberian Peninsula by the first waves of Homo sapiens.

These findings, when taken together, pointed researchers to an obvious conclusion: that Neanderthals were already disappearing and being replaced by other Neanderthals groups long before being replaced by modern humans.

Experts say the older Neanderthal groups on the Iberian Peninsula began to die out and disappear, leaving their tool styles to die out with them, only to then be replaced by a fresh group of Neanderthals toting Châtelperronian tools that likely migrated from nearby modern-day France. This cycle of replacement continued, experts theorize, before being broken by the more advanced Homo sapiens who slowly moved into the area.

But the study suggests that in the grand scheme of Neanderthals, once the new Châtelperronian arrived on the peninsula, it likely wasn’t long before Neanderthals saw their final days.

“This probably reflects a relatively short duration for the Châtelperronian in the Northern Iberian Peninsula and a quick replacement of the last Neandertals by the first Homo sapiens arriving in Western Europe,” the study authors wrote. “This scenario would be consistent with the complex evolutionary (historical) trajectories of late Neandertal groups just before their extinction.”

Experts say more research into these waves of replacement are needed to help flesh out their timeline even further. Once this turbulent period is better understood, experts are hopeful they may have even more clues on how the ancient humans were ushered from existence.

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