Neanderthals and modern humans coexisted for well over 100,000 years. Then suddenly Homo neandertalensis began to die out and surrender the earth to Homo sapiens. Paleontologists and anthropologists have entertained several possibilities to the causes of this event: interbreeding among Neanderthals and humans, competition for natural resources, and Darwin’s theory of “survival of the fittest.” What the real cause has been has plagued scientists for years. Now, due to an international research team from Germany, those possibilities have been even further deduced, making it easier to pinpoint the exact reason Homo neandertalensis became extinct.
Scientists thought that interbreeding would be a logical assumption to the Neanderthal conundrum. Unfortunately, any evidence of DNA from Neanderthals mixed with human DNA is difficult to come by because their fossils are usually tarnished upon finding. That is until Svante Paabo, and his research team from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, came across the remains of twenty-four Neanderthals and forty early humans.* All of these fossils were nearly 40,000 years old and were from Germany, Russia, and Croatia. Nine of these fossils (four Neanderthal and five human)
contained mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), completely intact. Mitochondrial DNA is tougher than the DNA found in cell nuclei; it is also found in the cytoplasm of a fertilized egg and is passed only through maternal lineage. This makes it much easier for the team to study and makes testing more accurate.
Paabo’s team, from Leipzig, Germany, used a method of amino acid content as a way of measuring extractible DNA from the bones. The amino acid method was a...
... middle of paper ...
...ut there on what happened to the Neanderthals, such as competition or fighting. Scientists also are aware of the fact that mtDNA is only carried from the mother. This means that there may still be evidence of interbreeding out there that is carried from the male.
Our technology is not yet strong enough to rule out both sexes as a carrier of common genes. Therefore the case of interbreeding still remains to be closed. However Paabo and his team are confident that their research has proved that Neanderthals could not have died out solely because of interbreeding. Scientists are still trying to conclude what exactly did the Neanderthals in; this discovery brings them one step closer, but not completely to the edge.
All references and resources are taken from the Public Library of Science, Biology March 2004 issue and from Science March 16, 2004
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