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Cold, Dry Climate Responsible For Neanderthal Disappearance

Cold, Dry Climate Shifts Linked to Neanderthal Disappearance

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Neanderthal
Visitors take pictures of models representing Flores, human and Neanderthal women in the "Musee des Confluences," a new science and anthropology museum in Lyon, central France, Dec. 18, 2014. Neanderthals had a long run in Europe, but disappeared about 40,000 years ago after modern humans showed up. (VOA)
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Ancient periods of cold and dry climate helped our species replace Neanderthal in Europe, a study suggests.

Researchers found that such cold periods coincided with an apparent disappearance of our evolutionary cousins in different parts of the continent, and the appearance of our species, Homo sapiens.

“Whether they moved or died out, we can’t tell,” said Michael Staubwasser of the University of Cologne in Germany.

Neanderthals once lived in Europe and Asia but died out about 40,000 years ago, just a few thousand years after our species, Homo sapiens, arrived in Europe. Scientists have long debated what happened, and some have blamed the change in climate. Other proposed explanations have included epidemics and the idea that the newcomers edged out the Neanderthals for resources.

Staubwasser and colleagues reported their findings Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They drew on existing climate, archaeological and ecological data and added new indicators of ancient climate from studies of two caves in Romania.

Their study highlighted two cold and dry periods. One began about 44,000 years ago and lasted about 1,000 years. The other began about 40,800 years ago and lasted six centuries. The timing of those events matches the periods when artifacts from Neanderthals disappear and signs of H. sapiens appear in sites within the Danube River valley and in France, they noted.

Neanderthal model
Neanderthal model. Reconstruction of a Neanderthal (Homo neanderthalensis) based on the La Chapelle-aux-Saints fossils. Neanderthals inhabited Europe and western Asia between 230,000 and 29,000 years ago. They did not use complex tools but had mastery of fire and built shelters. It is thought that they had language and a complex social structure, living in small family groups and hunting for food. It is not known why Neanderthals became extinct, but one theory is that they were outcompeted by modern humans (Homo sapiens). Reconstruction by Elisabeth Daynes of the Daynes Studio, Paris, France.

The climate shifts would have replaced forest with shrub-filled grassland, and H. sapiens may have been better adapted to that new environment than the Neanderthals were, so they could move in after Neanderthals disappeared, the researchers wrote.

Katerina Harvati, a Neanderthal expert at the University of Tuebingen in Germany who wasn’t involved in the study, said it’s helpful to have the new climate data from southeastern Europe, a region that H. sapiens is thought to have used to spread through the continent.

But she said it’s unclear whether Neanderthals disappeared and H. sapiensappeared at the times the authors indicate, because the studies they cite rely on limited evidence and are sometimes open to dispute.

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Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London said he thought the paper made a good case for an impact of the climate shifts on Neanderthals, although he believes other factors were also at work in their disappearance.

Rick Potts of the Smithsonian Institution called the study “a refreshing new look” at the species replacement.

“As has been said before, our species didn’t outsmart the Neanderthals,” Potts said in an email. “We simply outsurvived them. The new paper offers much to contemplate about how it occurred.” (VOA)

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Europe Suffers From a Severe Measles Outbreak

The U.N. agency on Monday called for better surveillance of the disease and increased immunization rates to prevent measles from becoming endemic.

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Measles
Doctor Roberto Ieraci vaccinates a woman in Rome as Italy battles one of its worst epidemics of measles in recent years. VOA

The World Health Organization says the number of measles cases in Europe jumped sharply during the first six months of 2018 and at least 37 people have died.

The U.N. agency’s European office said Monday more than 41,000 measles cases were reported in the region during the first half of the year — more than in all 12-month periods so far this decade.

The previous highest annual total was 23,927 cases in 2017. A year earlier, only 5,273 cases were reported.

The agency said half — some 23,000 cases — this year occurred in Ukraine, where an insurgency backed by Russia has been fighting the government for four years in the east in a conflict that has killed over 10,000 people.

France, Georgia, Greece, Italy, Russia and Serbia also had more than 1,000 measles infections each so far this year.

measles
An undated electron microscope image of a measles virus particle. VOA

Measles, among the world’s most contagious diseases, is a virus that’s spread in the air through coughing or sneezing. It can be prevented with a vaccine that’s been in use since the 1960s, but health officials say vaccination rates of at least 95 percent are needed to prevent epidemics.

Vaccine skepticism remains high in many parts of Europe after past immunization problems.

Measles typically begins with a high fever and also causes a rash on the face and neck. While most people who get it recover, measles is one of the leading causes of death among young children, according to the WHO.

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Italy has introduced a new law requiring parents to vaccinate their children against measles and nine other childhood diseases. Romania also passed a similar bill, including hefty fines for parents who didn’t vaccinate their children.

The U.N. agency on Monday called for better surveillance of the disease and increased immunization rates to prevent measles from becoming endemic.(VOA)