Declines in upper paleolithic European human populations due to less food

Eugène Morin of Trent University has just published this paper in PNAS, “Evidence for declines in human population densities during the early Upper Paleolithic in western Europe.”

He studied the fluctuations in the zooarchaeological record from the Saint-Césaire site in France. And he found remains of rodents that live in the tundra species which indicate colder conditions. To coincide with the presence of rodents, there was a dramatic decrease in large mammal diversity, except for reindeer. Reindeer populations jumped up from 35 to 87% during this climate change.

An increase in reindeer population inversely relates to human population densities because the diversity of animals that could be hunted shrank severely, and that would have impacted human populations. He concludes, Neandertal populations reduced as Europe’s environment became harsher, with some groups going extinct by 40,000 to 35,000 years ago.

Reindeer jawbone from a site in France

Since 2006, I’ve read several studies going back and forth on climate change as the nail in the coffin for Neandertals. Do you remember the ‘last stand in Gilbraltar‘? That study relied on archaeological remains of a sheltered site in Gibraltar. It also suggested extreme climates affected the extinction of Neandertals. But in September 2007 a study from Max Planck’s Katerina Harvati concluded that catastrophic climate change was not a cause for extinction. Here’s the link to that paper, “Placing late Neanderthals in a climatic context.”

Morin is taking a different angle. He’s saying climate change was a cause for the reduction on Neandertal populations but also that Neandertals gave rise to the first modern humans in Europe! Morin says to National Geographic News that climate stresses may have wrought evolutionary adaptations in surviving Neandertals, leading them to develop characteristics like those of modern humans. And in his the abstract, Morin writes,

“These data suggest that the EUP represented for humans a period of significant niche contraction in western Europe. In this context, the possibility that a modern human expansion occurred in this region seems low. Instead, it is suggested that population bottlenecks, genetic drift, and gene flow prevailed over human population replacement as mechanisms of evolution in humans during the EUP.”

So he’s suggesting that climate change influenced the rise of the first modern humans in Europe from Neandertals. How do you feel about this conclusion?

7 thoughts on “Declines in upper paleolithic European human populations due to less food

  1. “So he’s suggesting that climate change influenced the rise of the first modern humans in Europe from Neandertals.”

    Is there not evidence contradicting this conclusion? Such evidence as that modern humans and Neanderthals existed alongside each other over a period of years? If climate change affected the Neanderthals in such a way that they developed into modern humans, then this evidence is not evidence at all and should logically not exist?

  2. Is he saying they developed into modern humans, or is he saying they were replaced by modern humans? The two statements would seem to be quite different to me. The first suggests that Neanderthals are our direct ancestors, the second doesn’t. The second would still also permit a period of co-existence because replacement doesn’t have to happen over night.

  3. As Archaeozoo says , “The two statements would seem to be quite different to me”. The article does suggest modern humans evolved solely from Neanderthals but my guess is that modern humans in Europe developed from some level of hybridism with incoming so-called “modern” humans.

    But regarding the main thrust of the article I would say that the less food resulted from the expansion of humans into the northerly regions they had previously been unable to survive in. Their hunting pressure exterminated the large mammals and those following had to come to terms with less food.

    The article: “Neandertal populations reduced as Europe’s environment became harsher, with some groups going extinct by 40,000 to 35,000 years ago”. That may be true of humans in Europe but I understand the megafauna became extinct more recently.

  4. Terry, I’m a bit confused with your last paragraph. Stan Florek of the Australian Museum, writes that megafauna extinction happened simultaneously in Eurasia with the replacement of the periglacial tundra by forest. Glacial species, such as mammoths and woolly rhinoceros, were replaced by animals better adapted to forests, such as elk, deer and pigs. And the reindeer retreated north, while horses moved south to the central Asian steppe. This all happened about 10, 000 years ago. But this was during a stage when temperatures were warming up. What Morin is concluding came about as temperatures were becoming colder.

  5. He seems to be dealing with changing climate “40,000 to 35,000 years ago”. But megafauna were still present, or present again, long after that, as you say, “about 10, 000 years ago”. I also believe the statement, “megafauna extinction happened simultaneously in Eurasia with the replacement of the periglacial tundra by forest” is an oversimplification. If we move beyond just Eurasia we find that megafauna extinctions happen in different regions at different times. And even close examination of the pattern within Eurasia shows it was progressive. More, even though forest replaced tundra “Glacial species, such as mammoths and woolly rhinoceros” could still have moved north where tundra was still present. Their extinction has nothing to do with the expansion of forest.

  6. There is widespread evidence that Paleolithic megafauna in Eurasia and North America became extinct very rapidly – much too rapidly for the cause to have been over hunting or gradual climate change. There is also strong evidence for an impact event about 13,000 years ago which brought about the extinction of the Clovis culture and the megafauna in North America about that time. Although it does not find popular favour within the scientific community catastrophism does seem to explain much of what brought about the end of the Ice Age.

Comments are closed.

A WordPress.com Website.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: