The lack of empirical data to test different hypotheses is one of the biggest challenges for researchers studying the extinction of our evolutionary cousins. Many theories involve catastrophic events, such as diseases or climate change.
With the idea of testing alternative scenarios, Degioanni’s team developed a Neanderthal population model that allows them to explore demographic factors that could have caused a decline in populations and subsequent extinction over a period of 4,000 to 10,000 years (a time frame compatible with the known history of this species of the genus Homo). The authors created demographic benchmarks (survival, migration and fertility rates) based on observational data on groups of modern hunter-gatherers and large existing apes, as well as paleo-genetic and empirical data available from previous studies. Degioanni’s team defined populations as extinct when they fell below 5,000 individuals.
The model showed that extinction would have been possible over a period of 10,000 years with a decrease in the fertility rates of young Neanderthal women (<20 years) of only 2.7%; If the fertility rate decreased by 8%, extinction occurred in just 4,000 years.
This study is the first to use empirical data to suggest that relatively minor demographic changes, such as a reduction in fertility or an increase in infant mortality, could have led to the extinction of Neanderthals. The authors point out that modeling can be a useful tool to study this species.
“We are not trying to explain why the Neanderthals disappeared,” the authors point out in the study, “but to identify how their extinction may have occurred. The results suggest that a very small reduction in fertility may explain the disappearance of the Neanderthal population.”
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