Neanderthals: Bad luck and its part in their downfall
AS OUR ancestors moved north out of Africa and onto the doorstep to the rest of the world, they came across their long-lost cousins: the Neanderthals. As the popular story goes, the brutish hominins were simply no match for cultured, intelligent Homo sapiens and quickly went extinct.
Maybe, but it’s also possible that Neanderthals were simply unlucky and disappeared by chance, mathematicians propose.
We know that humans and Neanderthals got pretty cosy during their time together in the Middle East, 45,000 years ago. Between 1 and 4 per cent of the DNA of modern non-Africans is of Neanderthal origin, implying their ancestors must have interbred before humans moved into Europe (New Scientist, 15 May 2010, p 8).
The popular theory has it that humans soon displaced Neanderthals thanks to their superior skills and adaptations. But mathematicians Armando Neves at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and Maurizio Serva at the University of Aquila, Italy, now say that the extinction of Neanderthals may have been down to a genetic lottery.
When two populations interbreed, one of them can go extinct simply due to the random mixing of their genes through sexual reproduction.
To find out if this could have wiped out Neanderthals, Neves and Serva modelled the populations that met in the Middle East. Using very few assumptions, they estimated the rate of interbreeding that would lead to the observed share of Neanderthal DNA.
Their results suggest that the 1 to 4 per cent genetic mix could have come about with one interbreeding every 10 to 80 generations. The time taken to reach this mix would depend on the size of the populations. But regardless of populations, Neves and Serva’s model shows that low rates of interbreeding could theoretically have led to the extinction of Neanderthals through a genetic lottery (arxiv.org/abs/1103.4621).
“The observed low fraction of Neanderthal DNA could easily have arisen quite naturally even if Neanderthals weren’t inferior,” says Neves.
A strong point of the analysis, says anthropologist Luke Premo of the University of Washington in Pullman, is that it makes few assumptions about unknown factors, including the relative sizes of the African and Neanderthal populations at the time.
Nevertheless, says Premo, the evidence for some kind of superiority of the African group is still strong. “Humans were expanding while Neanderthals were fairly restricted to a portion of Eurasia,” he says. “Given their larger population and expansion, it appears that humans were bound to win out.”