A new study which analyzed Neanderthal DNA suggests that our close, now extinct relatives were on the point of dying off as a race well before humans made their appearance in Western Europe.
The team of international researchers analyzed the mitochondrial DNA extracted from the bones of 13 Neanderthals, and studied its variation. Mitochondrial DNA is copious relative to autosomal DNA, making ancient DNA extraction easier. The fossil specimens came from Europe and Asia and span a time period ranging from 100,000 years ago to about 35,000 years ago.
Researchers observed that DNA variation in Western Europe specimens was as much as six-fold smaller than that found in Asian samples. This lead scientists to claim that the European Neanderthals were less prepared for a change in the environment and susceptible to mass extinction as a result of the ice age raging around 50,000 years ago. However, a small group later recolonised central and western Europe, where they survived for another 10,000 years before modern humans appeared , the researchers went on to add. Humans are believed to have first appeared in Europe circa 40,000 years ago.
"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," said lead author Love Dalen, from the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm.
"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."
This might have a potentially important consequence in the current human-Neanderthal relation theories. One important assumption in the Neanderthal extinction theory was that humans had an important part to play in it, however in light of this recent study, then the human race might have never had anything to do with the death of its cousin. It was simply a matter of survival of the fittest, as the Marine Isotope Stage Three period, a time of severe climate change, challenged life on Earth to adapt or die.
The scientists reported their findings in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.