Short-Lived? Hardly—Neanderthals Matched Early Humans’ Lifespan

By Andrew Moseman | January 11, 2011 5:59 pm

Diet, brains, murder at the hands of a certain species called Homo sapiens, life expectancy: These and more have been floated as reasons to explain the vexing question: Why did Neanderthals die out about 30,000 years ago while our ancestors persisted?

In a study in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Erik Trinkaus argues that we should scratch the last one—life expectancy—off the list. His wide-ranging survey of Neanderthal and early human remains shows that our ancestors had no particular advantage over the Neanderthals in living into old age.

Dr. Trinkaus studied fossil records of humans from across Eurasia and of Neanderthals from the western half of Eurasia to estimate adult mortality in the two groups. He found that there was approximately the same number of adults in the 20-to-40 age range and over-40 age range in both groups. [The New York Times]

That era was no time for old men. Only about a quarter of Neanderthals and early humans that Trinkaus found lived into their 40s. He notes that it’s possible both the Homo sapiens and Neanderthals had more elderly folks than the study would suggest, but that the demands of chasing food meant leaving the older members of the societies behind if they couldn’t go on. If those remains were scattered, they are less like to be discovered and entered into the fossil record.

“All the samples have a dearth of older individuals, which should reflect a complex combination of low life expectancy for adults, demographic instability, and the demands of mobility,” he said. “If indeed there was a demographic advantage for early modern humans, at least during transitional phases of Late Pleistocene human evolution, it must have been the result of increased fertility and/or reduced immature mortality.” [AFP]

Whatever the true reasons that Neanderthals disappeared, they are, of course, still lurking in our genes.

Related Content:
80beats: Omnivorous Neanderthals: Study Says Their Teeth Show Evidence of Eating Plants
80beats: Did Neanderthals’ Hasty Growth Hamper Their Mental Development?
80beats: Studying Neanderthal Brain Development, One (Indirect) CT Scan at a Time
80beats: Evidence of Smart, Jewelry-Making Neanderthals Is Challenged
80beats: Rough Draft of the Neanderthal Genome is Complete

Image: flickr / Ryan Somma

  • Georg

    One has to include fertility and
    life expectancy of newbornes for a complete picture.
    Newbornes bones are much less likely to be

  • Ganesha

    All of this is well and good but it seems much more likely that Homo neanderthalensis suffered from a technological disadvantage that led to their demise. Homo sapiens had something that they did not. Maybe it was control of fire. More likely it was an advantage in food acquisition or production, such as rudimentary domestication of animals and/or plants. The dates may not fit together very neatly, but Neanderthal extinction would have taken at least several hundred years while the development of basic pre-agricultural practices would have taken thousands of years to manifest in the historical record. Such cultural advances have allowed various homo sapiens groups to eliminate one another many times throughout the course of history, even without the use of violent aggression. Couldn’t this pattern possibly extend back to a “conflict” Neanderthals and ancient humans?

  • amphiox

    Maybe it was control of fire.

    Every human species since H. erectus at the least could control fire.

    The dates may not fit together very neatly

    No they don’t at all. We’re talking a discrepancy of almost 20 000 years, almost twice as long as the entire period for which we actually have evidence of agricultural activity of any kind.

  • Roger

    It seems to me that an obvious possibility is not mentioned in this article. How about a disease that infected all of us, but which was only fatal to the Neanderthal?

  • http://none Donna

    Disease, birth rate, life span – pishaw! It was the nature of the beast that destroyed the Neanderthal….and the “beast” was modern humans!

  • Peter

    Thinking about it, humans are to be considered as the ultimate pest both in numbers and behaviour. If there would be a “superior” species they would be after us like we are after the rats. That’s why, if a superior race would come to Earth, they’d be on our asses.

  • Jim Mooney

    Well, that would certainly solve the Social Security problem, and it has precedent. Leave the old folks out in the desert to die.

  • Jim Mooney

    We need only look at George W. Bush to realize the neanderthals did not die out, but interbred with humans quite prolifically. Even now, many women prefer the neanderthal look and physique, so there was obviously a lot of interbreeding.


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