Neanderthals on verge of extinction before modern humans came

Contrary to previously held view, scientists claim to have found evidence which suggests that Neanderthals in Europe were on the brink of extinction even before the arrival of modern humans on this planet.

It was believed that Europe was populated by a stable Neanderthal population for hundreds of thousands of years up until modern humans arrived.

Now, an international team has shown that most Neanderthals in Europe died off around 50,000 years ago, after they carried out an analysis of ancient DNA, the 'Molecular Biology and Evolution' journal reported.

The results indicate that most Neanderthals in Europe died off as early as 50,000 years ago. After that, a small group of Neanderthals recolonised central and western Europe, where they survived for another 10,000 years before modern humans entered the picture.

The study is the result of an international project led by Swedish and Spanish researchers.

"The fact that Neanderthals in Europe were nearly extinct, but then recovered, and that all this took place long before they came into contact with modern humans came as a complete surprise to us.

"This indicates that the Neanderthals may have been more sensitive to the dramatic climate changes that took place in the last Ice Age than was previously thought," said Prof Love Dalen at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, a team member. 

In connection with work on DNA from Neanderthal fossils in Northern Spain, the team noted that the genetic variation among European Neanderthals was extremely limited during the last ten thousand years before the Neanderthals disappeared.

Older European Neanderthal fossils, as well as fossils from Asia, had much greater genetic variation, on par with the amount of variation that might be expected from a species that had been abundant in an area for a long period of time.

"The amount of genetic variation in geologically older Neanderthals as well as in Asian Neanderthals was just as great as in modern humans as a species, whereas the variation among later European Neanderthals was not even as high as that of modern humans in Iceland," said Prof Anders Gotherstrom at Uppsala University, who led the team.

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