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This appears to be a very interesting new theory that comes with a bold (and controversial) study: 40,000 years ago the volcanoes in Europe blew the final whistle for our close relatives, the Neanderthals. The picture provided by the researchers seem consistent with the chronology, though some scholars remain unconvinced. Other theories suggest that modern humans played an important role in the demise of the Neanderthals in a variety of ways including warfare. This is, as far as I know, the first plausible theory on a “catastrophic explanation”. The study is published in the October issue of the journal “Current Anthropology”. Probably a wave of controversy will follow soon by the “orthodox academicians”.

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The skull of a Neandertal woman.
Catastrophic volcanic eruptions in Europe may have culled Neanderthals to the point where they couldn’t bounce back, according to a controversial new theory.
Modern humans, though, squeaked by, thanks to fallback populations in Africa

About 40,000 years ago in what we now call Italy and the Caucasus Mountains, which straddle Europe and Asia, several volcanoes erupted in quick succession, according to a new study to be published in the October issue of the journal Current Anthropology.

It’s likely the eruptions reduced or wiped out local bands of Neanderthals and indirectly affected farther-flung populations, the team concluded after analyzing pollen and ash from the affected area. (See volcano pictures.)

The researchers examined sediments layer from around 40,000 years ago in Russia‘s Mezmaiskaya Cave and found that the more volcanic ash a layer had, the less plant pollen it contained.

“We tested all the layers for this volcanic ash signature. The most volcanic-ash-rich layer”—likely corresponding to the so-called Campanian Ignimbrite eruption, which occurred near Naples (map)—”had no [tree] pollen and very little pollen from other types of plants,” said study team member Naomi Cleghorn. “It’s just a sterile layer.”

The loss of plants would have led to a decline in plant-eating mammals, which in turn would have affected the Neanderthals, who hunted large mammals for food.

“This idea of an environmental cause for the Neanderthals’ demise has been out in the literature. What we’re trying to do is point out a specific mechanism,” said Cleghorn, an anthropologist at the University of Texas, Arlington.

Other theories propose that modern humans played a vital role in the fall of the Neanderthals, either through competition, warfare, or interbreeding. (See “Neanderthals, Humans Interbred—First Solid DNA Evidence.”)

If the volcanoes theory is correct, the Neanderthals’ end was much more tragic: dying slowly in a cold and desolate landscape bereft of food sources.

“It’s hard to say what it would have been like to be the last few groups out there, seeing other groups less and less over the years,” Cleghorn said.

Anthropologist John Hoffecker, though, suggests that modern humans had already begun crowding out Neanderthals in Europe long before the eruptions in question.

Judging from discoveries of modern-human artifacts in former Neanderthal strongholds, Hoffecker said, “Neanderthals were clearly in trouble well before 40,000 years ago, because modern humans were occupying certain places, such as Italy, where Neanderthals had been present. So something clearly had gone wrong there.”

Perhaps, he added, the volcanic eruptions just dealt the final blow.

“I’m not entirely convinced that’s the case either,” said Hoffecker, of the University of Colorado. “But at least that’s a plausible scenario that’s consistent with the chronology.”