Did Neandertals die off because of cannibalism and transmissible spongiform encephalopathies?

So there’s this hypotheses that Neandertal extinction was due to cannibalism. This is an alternative but complementary hypothesis to the climate change one. In an upcoming paper in Medical Hypotheses, Simon Underdown investigates this hypotheses by looking at Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs). The paper is titled, “A potential role for Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies in Neanderthal extinction.”

TSEs are also known as prion diseases, a communicable disease where the infectious agent is a malformed protein that replicates by imprinting and transforming other proteins. Most TSEs manifest in the host’s neurological tissues because he or she ate infected nervous tissue. Ultimately, the host’s tissues degenerate and lead to serious problems, most often death. In anthropology, one form of TSEs has been well documented, the spread and eradication of kuru in the Fore from Papua New Guinea.

Before I read the abstract, I assumed Simon looked at Neandertal fossils for paleopathological evidence of spongiform encephalopathies…. at least to some degree. However, the abstract doesn’t definitively indicate whether or not Simon looked into the Neandertal fossil record. Instead, the abstract tells us,

“A modern human hunter-gatherer proxy has been developed and applied as a hypothetical model to the Neanderthals. This hypothesis suggests that the impact of TSEs on the Neanderthals could have been dramatic and have played a large part in contributing to the processes of Neanderthal extinction.”

For those that are curious if there’s evidence of Neandertal cannibalism, you’re in luck. Neandertal cannibalism has been previously documented from remains from sites like Moula-Guercy caves in Ardèche, France, and El Sidrón, Asturias, Spain, so it is totally probable that some got prion diseases. But they were eating each other for 100,000 or so years before the faded out of the picture. You’d think that if they died of prion dieases it wouldn’t take so damn long. Anyways, I just really wonder how Simon went about figuring out if Neandertals really got TSEs.

    UNDERDOWN, S. (2008). A potential role for Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies in Neanderthal extinction. Medical Hypotheses DOI: 10.1016/j.mehy.2007.12.014

5 thoughts on “Did Neandertals die off because of cannibalism and transmissible spongiform encephalopathies?

  1. Should extinction necessarily entail a prion disease or an asteroid colliding with earth? They may be an effect of evolution instead. Many species have become extinct over the years. Not all suffered prion disease. However, cannibalism does increase the chance of contracting spongiform encephalopathies.

  2. Amiya, from what I can tell, you’re saying one event did not cause Neandertal extinction. Right? Prion diseases may have been a factor, but it’s not the entire story.


  3. Is it no longer fashionable/politically correct to suggest that the Neanderthals were just competed out of existence by Homo sapiens sapiens (with or without cannibalism on the latter’s part)?

  4. This is a topic I find quite interesting. Although I’m more of an armchair anthropologist, I came across this after reading a Discovery article that seemed to state the prion disease hypothesis as if there was actual physical evidence. I can’t imagine what physical evidence there would be though? Neanderthal were quite intelligent, and I agree with Amiya when he questions the need for a single devastating condition. I can’t imagine such intelligent creatures being wiped out as a result of such an epidemic. Of course, with such large brains I can see how Homo neanderthalensis might have been tempted to consume the 1450 cc meal. I’m just curious about the nature of the evidence we’re talking about here.

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