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Growing up in Israel, Gili Greenbaum would give tours of local caves once inhabited by Neanderthals and wonder along with others why our distant cousins abruptly disappeared about 40,000 years ago. Now a scientist at Stanford, Greenbaum thinks he has an answer.
In a new study published in the journal Nature Communications, Greenbaum and his colleagues propose that complex disease transmission patterns can explain not only how modern humans were able to wipe out Neanderthals in Europe and Asia in just a few thousand years but also, perhaps more puzzling, why the end didn't come sooner.
Research - Diseases - Role - Extinction - Neanderthals
"Our research suggests that diseases may have played a more important role in the extinction of the Neanderthals than previously thought. They may even be the main reason why modern humans are now the only human group left on the planet," said Greenbaum, who is the first author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher in Stanford's Department of Biology.
Archeological evidence suggests that the initial encounter between Eurasian Neanderthals and an upstart new human species that recently strayed out of Africa—our ancestors—occurred more than 130,000 years ago in the Eastern Mediterranean in a region known as the Levant.
Tens - Thousands - Years - Neanderthals - Humans
Yet tens of thousands of years would pass before Neanderthals began disappearing and modern humans expanded beyond the Levant. Why did it take so long?
Employing mathematical models of disease transmission and gene flow, Greenbaum and an international team of collaborators demonstrated how the unique diseases harbored by Neanderthals and modern humans could have created an invisible disease barrier that discouraged forays into enemy territory. Within this narrow contact zone, which was centered in the Levant where first contact took place, Neanderthals and modern humans coexisted in an uneasy equilibrium that lasted tens of millennia.
Stalemate - Ancestors - Neanderthals
Ironically, what may have broken the stalemate and ultimately allowed our ancestors to supplant Neanderthals was...
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