A sharp freeze could have dealt the killer blow
that finished off our evolutionary cousins the Neanderthals,
according to a 2006 study.
These ancient humans were generally thought to have
died out in most parts of Europe by about 29,000 to 30,000 years ago.
And in 2006, new data from their last known refuge in southern Iberia
indicated that the final population was probably beaten by a cold spell
some 24,000 years ago.
The research was reported by experts from the
Gibraltar Museum and from Spain. They said that a climate downturn
may have caused a drought, placing pressure on the last surviving
Neanderthals by reducing their supplies of fresh water and killing
off the animals they hunted.
Sediment cores drilled from the sea bed near the
Balearic Islands showed that the average sea-surface temperature
plunged to 8C (46F). Modern-day sea surface temperatures in the
same region vary from 14C (57F) to 20C (68F). In addition, increased
amounts of sand were deposited in the sea and the amount of river
water running into the sea also plummeted.
Neanderthals appear in the fossil record about
350,000 years ago and, at their peak, these squat, physically powerful
hunters dominated a wide range, spanning Britain and Iberia in the
west to Israel in the south and Uzbekistan in the east.
Our own species, Homo sapiens, evolved in
Africa. They displaced the Neanderthals in the Middle East and then
did the same in Europe after beginning to enter it about 40,000 years
ago. During the last ice age, the Iberian peninsula was a refuge in
which Neanderthals lived on for several thousand years after they
had died out elsewhere in Europe.
Homo neanderthalensis had survived in local
pockets during previous ice ages, bouncing back when conditions
improved. But the last one appears to have been characterised by several
rapid and severe changes in climate which hit a peak some 30,000 years