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Why did Neanderthals go extinct?

By John Gibbons

Smithsonian paleoanthropologist Briana Pobiner gives us a closer look into what may have caused Neanderthals to disappear. (Photo by John Gibbons)

Smithsonian paleoanthropologist Briana Pobiner gives us a closer look into what may have caused Neanderthals to disappear. (Photo by John Gibbons)

Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) were widespread across Europe and Western Asia for a long time, starting about 400,000 years ago. But things began to change when populations of Homo sapiens (earlier members of our own species) migrated from Africa to Europe at about 45,000 years ago. Five thousand years later not a single Neanderthal remained. What happened? To find out, Smithsonian Insider posed a seemingly simple question to Briana Pobiner, paleoanthropologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Q: So, why exactly did Neanderthals go extinct?

Pobiner: It is hard to know exactly why many species are on the verge of extinction now, let alone species in the deep past that are already gone. However, we can assume some of the same basic ecological processes driving animals to extinction today are part of the puzzle. In the case of Neanderthals, we think competition and changes to their habitat due to climate change were two of the main factors.

Neanderthals were fairly specialized to hunt large, Ice Age animals. But sometimes being specialized isn’t such a good strategy. When climates changed and some of those animals went extinct, the Neanderthals may have been more vulnerable to starvation.

Briana Pobiner studies the bones of many different species of early humans, including Neanderthals, as part of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program. (credit: Smithsonian)

Briana Pobiner studies the bones of many different species of early humans, including Neanderthals, as part of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program. (Smithsonian photo)

We also think Homo sapiens had a competitive edge over Neanderthals. There is evidence that early Homo sapiens had long-distance trade networks, possibly buffering them against times of climate change when their preferred foods were not available; Neanderthals did not.

Neanderthals had physical features that helped them survive cold climates, like large noses to humidify and warm dry, cold air and short, stout bodies to conserve heat, but early Homo sapiens had technology that Neanderthals didn’t, including sewing needles to make clothing, important during the colder periods of the Ice Ages. Homo sapiens also had innovative tools like bows and arrows and seemed to have a more diverse diet than Neanderthals.

We don’t have evidence of direct combat between the two species, but we know they interacted, because they interbred. Some would say Neanderthals didn’t go extinct, because everyone alive today whose ancestry is from outside of Africa (where Neanderthals never lived) carries a little bit of Neanderthal DNA in their genes.


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  • qualsz

    seeking for advise that since when sciencetists have admitted / discovered modern non-african people have neanderthal DNA?

    As I ever learned that the difference between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals is as big as that of modern human and Chimpanzees, thus they could not ever interbreed.

  • John

    I take it that from such a cheap ad hominem shot that you feel the burn and not the burden of historical knowledge or deep thought.

  • John

    Gee, Perfesser. You might stand to benefit from a ninth grade English class too

  • Doc2222

    The proof that Neanderthals never went extinct is the Republican Party.

    • John

      Yes, and bestialiaty produces Democrats.

  • Andrew Sands

    Hitler Version 1.0. 1.1 was created in the 1930’s

  • Tatsujiro Kurogane

    The John 3:16 Theory???? 😉

  • Tanthalas

    I don’t think using the term “interbred” is suggesting it was consensual breeding, like you seem to suggest. Whether it was rape or not, the term still applies.

    • Daniel Sheppard

      I do declare.

  • Susan Solomon

    I agree Tracey – there’s been absolutely no corresponding evidence about social systems that explain ‘interbreeding.’ Also, there are huge unexplained issues with that theory regarding the total lack of Homo Sapiens mitochondrial DNA. No HS mitochondria DNA implies that males from our species were breeding with females in their group and not the other way around, or that HS females could not produce live offspring, which raises questions about how the opposite was true. This is a theory without enough scientific supporting evidence to be anything but some trippy money making expedition into the world of science as a circus.

  • Gabe

    But I also think it cold have ben both because they could have just bred out but yours is reasonable

  • Gabe

    I agree with you Tracey That is aver good hypothisis!

  • Mohammed Al-Diery

    Hey guys. I’m currently studying human evolution quite thoroughly in school at the moment. What you need to remember quite thoroughly is that this interbreeding/interaction occurred approximately 40,000 years ago. Whilst we don’t know for certain, cultural practice such as conquest, warfare, rape etc. was unlikely to exist in a largely nomadic hunter gatherer lifestyle and we can’t compare our culture to the culture of early H. sapiens. Also analysis of mitochondrial DNA shows no Neanderthal mtDNA in modern human mtDNA. This DNA is only inherited from the maternal line which would suggest that the only successful interbred that could have occurred was Neanderthal males with modern human females. Therefore, your suggestion of conquest and rape is not likely to be applicable to this event.

    • dandonovski

      the lack of mtDNA is interesting. though it doesnt rule out rape. if our neanderthal dna could only have come from neanderthal men, it is totally plausible to hypothesize that our neanderthal inheritance comes from our greatgreatgreat.. grandmothers being raped by neanderthal men, then raising the children as humans within human tribes. what this does prove though is that humans didnt just stroll in, take neanderthal women as wives and then snatch away the resulting children. though it is possible that these prehistoric populations did interbreed this way, since those resulting children may have ended up dying off within the neanderthal tribes without being able to pass on their neanderthal mtDNA to human populations

      • WIDTAP

        Or it could be that a perfectly suitable, svelt, intelligent homo sapien male was willing and available, but great-great-…-great grandma still went for the hairy, brutish, over-mussled Neaderthal.

        40,000 years of social changes later and certain human behavior still hasn’t changed!

        • dandonovski

          haha i like the way you think, but i think i’ve had enough of speculating on the sexual passions of my greatgreagreat.. grandmother..
          I think Mohammed nailed it when he said that since it happened so many thousands of years ago, we can hardly use our experience of human culture today to make assumptions on the way people were back then

    • Susan Solomon

      If you want to know more about the issue of rape etc. please read up on anthropological studies of humans. Most evidence indicates that in general ancient culture, human females from one group tended to approach females from another group, in exactly the same way Bonobos do. In early human existence this was probably the norm, with males following along if all went peacefully. Otherwise males either fought or fled.

    • Widtap

      There you go. Svelt, intelligent homo sapient male is available and willing, and the woman goes for the crude, hairy muscular Neanderthal.

      It looks like not like much has changed in 40,000 years!

  • Willie Herath

    “We don’t have evidence of direct combat between the two species, but we know they interacted, because they interbred.”

    Two different species interbred? By definition, species are genetically isolated from each other, meaning they can not interbreed. If modern genetics has proven that homo-sapiens bred with Neanderthals, then we must ask ourselves if we are dealing with two species or one. Real science would say that either one of these two species never existed or they never interbred.

    • Max

      Neanderthals are not fully a different species to modern man; both of us are subspecies of Homo sapiens. Our species Homo sapiens sapiens; theirs is Homo sapiens neanderthalensis.

      • Willie Herath

        Homo sapien is the binomial nomenclature for the human species. Homo is the human genus, which also includes Neanderthals and many other extinct species of hominid; H. sapiens is the only surviving species of the genus Homo.

        Neanderthals were a completely different species, that didn’t exist.

        • Max

          But they did interbreed. If they were different species, that wouldn’t be possible. But it happened. Some closely related species can interbreed.

          • Willie Herath

            How do you know they interbred Max? Also, if they did interbreed like you said, then by definition, they are the same species. Here’s the definition of species from the National Academy of Sciences.

            Species: In sexually reproducing organisms, species consist of individuals that can interbreed with each other.

            Geneticists that say we have Neanderthal DNA in our genome are essentially saying that Neanderthals never existed.

          • Max

            Your knowledge of science is insufficient, Willie. The definition of a species is not set in stone. Horses and donkeys can interbreed to create mules, remember? Lions and tigers can also interbreed, although their offspring may be sterile because they might have a different number of chromosomes.

            Parts of a given population might be isolated from the rest for hundreds of thousands of years, becoming almost a new species, but still be similar enough to interbreed with the original or ancestral population. That’s the case for Neanderthals and modern humans. They were related enough to be able to interbreed. This is simply a fact. We know it from genetic analysis: All the people who left Africa 60,000 years ago have trace amounts of Neanderthal genes in their DNA. Original humans all had krinkly hair, for instance, and Asians and Europeans got their straight hair gene from Neanderthals. Possibly also their light skin color.

          • Willie Herath

            Hybridization of two species is a generic dead end, therefore not an official species.

            Swedes and Pygmy tribes of central Africa have been separated for eons, yet are still able to actually interbreed and create viable offspring. We know this because of observation, which is amenable to science.

            Claiming that two different species, Neanderthals and humans, bred and had viable offspring is contrary to what we observe two different species capable of doing today.

            Anything outside of the visible observable universe is Webster’s definition of supernatural. Are you suggesting a supernatural event took place?

          • Max

            You are misunderstanding science, Willie, and I won’t discuss this any further with you.

          • Willie Herath

            Well, I definitely agree that at least one of us is misunderstanding science.

            Webster defines science as: knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation.

            Good chatting while it lasted.

            All the best to you. 🙂

          • Mohammed Al-Diery

            I know this is old but I’d like to clarify a few things. Scientific concepts are not as concrete as we might think. There are degrees of fluidity in terms of how we define things. For example, an object can be so viscous that it may appear solid but is in fact a liquid. A biological example of breeding that doesn’t follow traditional concepts is a cline. A cline is a series of seperate populations that live close to each other but have different features e.g as you go from north to south they become more pale etc. A deme (local population) can breed with the immediate demes next to it but cannot with any other deme. Think of a chain link. Whilst this chain remains unbroken, even though a deme cannot breed with certain other demes, because they are linked together in terms of gene flow by the demes immediately around it, they all are considered one species. As soon as one of the demes becomes extinct or dies out, that link breaks and you would have two separate clines and therefore species. It is very difficult for scientists to classify populations. Neanderthals are so genetically different to modern humans that for this reason they may have been classified as a different species. It is also important to remember that these cases of successful interbreeding are extremely rare and it is believed that in 5,000 years of interaction it only occurred 28 times. Comparing Swedes to Pgymy Tribes is not a reasonable example. Cultural evolution has taken over biological evolution as humans have manipulated their surroundings to suit themselves meaning no natural selection. Neanderthals lived before the expansion of human cultural evolution about 10,000 years ago, and due to different selection pressures in Northern Europe and Africa, Neanderthals and H. sapiens are biologically different.

          • Nancy Diaz

            I believe Willie has indeed misunderstood the scientific method. It is definitely not rigid as he wants it to appear. A number of scientific laws have been supplanted or modified as we gain a better understanding of nature and better experimental methods have been devised. A good example is Newton’s law of mechanics, for hundreds of years it was the law used for explaining motion but as scientists started studying the properties of subatomic particles they found out that the law simply doesn’t hold up and has to be supplanted with the law of quantum mechanics.when it comes to explaining the properties of subatomic particles.

          • Susan Solomon

            Breeding between species is exceedingly rare and problematic, based on the definition of ‘species’ as a closed DNA packet.

    • Susan Solomon

      I’ve been saying this for years. Neanderthals were dramatically different from HS in essential ways, including size, caloric intake (theirs was the largest of any hominid yet studied) lack of organized seasonal migration, more separation of gender life and significantly earlier puberty, inability to throw and run in the same way, fewer to no comparably sophisticated tools, as well as, to date, absolutely no comparable art.

    • craig

      Hasn’t it been established that Neanderthals are merely a different subspecies? Both of us are Homo Sapiens but we are “sapiens sapiens” while they were “sapiens neanderthalis.” Or has that been disproven?

      • Willie Herath

        According to Ernst Mayr and the Biological Species Concept (BSC), only the members of the same species can interbreed and have successful and viable offspring.

        Opening up the idea of a human subspecies, could end up being quite problematic today. Which humans are not fully human and which are just a subspecies? Sounds scary.

    • Bill589


      • Willie Herath

        Ligers can not produce viable offspring, they are sterile.

        • Bill589

          Thank you for the reply.
          I’m a novice at this but know a little bit about different dog breed relationships and their relationship to wolves.

          Is the amount of difference between Neanderthals and Sapiens more like the difference between dog breeds or more like the difference between dogs and wolves? Or is this another silly question?

          • Willie Herath

            I don’t believe any honest question is silly. 🙂

            When it comes to science, we can only infer up to a point, then we must follow through empirically.

            When it comes to wolves and varying breeds of domesticated dogs, we are able to observe both without inference. We know that wolves and dogs are very different, but observation and DNA testing has shown they are able to produce viable/fertile offspring together, which according to our understanding of biology, makes them the same species.

            When it comes to humans and Neanderthals, we are limited. All we have to compare is DNA. We can be positive that DNA sequenced from humans is in fact from humans. We can only hope the DNA that has been sequenced from Neanderthal bone samples is actually from a Neanderthal.

            Secondly, unlike the ancestor to domesticated dogs… the wolf, we don’t know if Neanderthals actually existed. There are many dig sites, and much evidence to suggest the existence of a human/human-like group that could be inferred to have been left by Neanderthals. Many scientifically minded researchers have not stopped at inference, but have continued on in search of empirical data. Of which, geneticists have discovered the human genome to possess very similar sequences to that of the proposed Neanderthal genome. This data is so compelling that geneticists have come to the consensus that Neanderthals and humans were able to interbreed and produce viable/fertile offspring together. Which according to our understanding of biology means the two groups are in fact one species.

            Although the idea of Neanderthals is fascinating, the empirical data suggests they were fully human. The most data focused way to view Neanderthals is as an ethnicity. Much like a four foot tall African Pygmy tribesman could have viable/fertile offspring with a six foot tall Swedish Supermodel, the differences are only ethnic and not a matter of species.

            There is no scientific data that definitively confirms that Neanderthals were a separate species. There is however, much empirically scientific data that draws very strong parallels to Neanderthals being a unique ethnicity, but in fact human.

            I hope this helps. 🙂

          • John Sowa

            The domestic dog was formerly considered the species Canis familiaris. But it has more recently been reclassified as a subspecies of grey wolf, Canis lupus familiaris.
            There is also some debate whether Homo neanderthalensis should be classified as a subspecies Homo sapiens neanderthalensis.

    • tobbers

      There are many ways in which to define a species – successful interbreeding is only one, and as with all the other methods (cladistic, phenetic, ecological…), it is not always applicable. The species concept is flexible and it is not nessecarily possible to draw straight lines between groups of organisms.

  • Why is this in the “News?” There is nothing new here — just some old hypotheses. Depending on the time nd locationm Neanderthals did eat a varied diet including birds, fish and shellfish. They also ate plants and cooked grains. They had leatherworking toools that were not used by contemporameous anatomically modern humans. They didn’t have eyed needles, but they had awls. Their population numbers were lower and the climate changes would have had an impact, but that also impacted AMH numbers as well, even later in the last glaciation. I think assimilation is the most likely cause of their disappearance as a separate species. See for details.

  • Keen

    There’s a great Sci Fi story where Neanderthal DNA is cloned, and hybrid Neanderthal – Sapiens babies born.
    Turns out Neanderthals are superior to us in EVERY way, smarter, faster, FAR stronger, but loving, peaceful. They died out only because their high energy /metabolism required more food. The ice age starved them, while Sapiens was more adaptable to hunger.
    In a couple generations, they dominated pro sports, and scientific, medical, legal professions.
    A racist backlash started, people were threatened, tho the number of hybrid humans was not large. Story ends inferring now its Homo Sapiens turn for extinction!

    • Murkuonatuesday

      More whites are dying then being born 2015

      • Tatsujiro Kurogane

        Are you suggesting there is yet hope for the species? That seems a touch racist, even though any student of history knows what bloodthirsty savages they are, historically speaking.

    • Colton Baldwin

      Whats the story called? it sounds very interesting.