In a fashion resembling Christopher Columbus’ conquest of the West Indies, minus the sheer barbarism and the sword, a new study shows that modern human migration out of Africa likely killed off the Neanderthals to the north with a number of human-borne illnesses that they could not cope with when contracted.
Not the only Neanderthal extinction theory
There are no shortage of theories as to what caused the demise of the Neanderthal and how modern humans became the dominant hominoid and responsible for who we are today. Somewhere around 45,000 years ago, humans that we now call modern, began their migration out of Africa and into both Europe and Asia. Just 5,000 years later, the Neanderthal was all but wiped out completely. It’s been argued that there was a fight to death between the two species, it’s been suggested that competition over resources doomed the Neanderthal. Others suggest that Neanderthals couldn’t deal with climate change like their human cousins.
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In a new study recently published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, lead author Charlotte Houldcroft, a Cambridge University infectious disease expert posits that it was likely diseases brought by humans into the northern fold that spelled doom to the Neanderthal. She did, however, suggest that it was likely not just disease, but a combination of mitigating factors that spelled the next five millennia of doom.
“Humans migrating out of Africa would have been a significant reservoir of tropical diseases,” Houldcroft said in a statement. “For the Neanderthal population of Eurasia, adapted to that geographical infectious disease environment, exposure to new pathogens carried out of Africa may have been catastrophic.”
“It is probable that a combination of factors caused the demise of Neanderthals and the evidence is building that spread of disease was an important one,” she added.
Ok, not like Columbus’ barbarism and disease carrying
Humans didn’t just bring “here you go, you’re dead” diseases either, but some real messy diseases like tapeworms, tuberculosis, ulcer-causing bacteria and as a final gift…genital herpes and the introduction of the first inter-species’ sexual transmitted disease.
But as Neanderthals weren’t really living on islands like the tribes of indigenous people conquered by Columbus in the West Indies; it would have been more gradual and involved multiple outbreaks in separate locations.
“[I]t is unlikely to have been similar to Columbus bringing disease into America and decimating native populations,” Houldcroft said. “It’s more likely that small bands of Neanderthals each had their own infection disasters, weakening the group and tipping the balance against survival.”
And let’s be clear, as both were hominin, inter-species breeding wasn’t as frowned on in theory, surely not in a manner of making jokes about the Welsh and sheep.
“The ‘intermediate’ hominin that bridged the virus between chimps and humans shows that diseases could leap between hominin species,” Houldcroft noted. “The herpes virus is transmitted sexually and through saliva. As we now know that humans bred with Neanderthals, and we all carry [two to five percent] of Neanderthal DNA as a result, it makes sense to assume that, along with bodily fluids, humans and Neanderthals transferred diseases.”
In order to get a better understanding of what diseases ultimately killed off the Neanderthals, someone will need to take a Genomic look at Houldcroft and her co-writers’ work and just take it a bit further.