Friday, January 04, 2008


A new theory by Australian researcher Ian Gilligan (in current issue of World Archaeology) proposes that Neanderthals probably froze to death in the last ice age because rapid climate change caught them by surprise without the tools needed to make warm clothes. By the time some Neanderthals developed sewing tools it was too little too late, says Gilligan.

Neanderthals began to die out just before the last glacial maximum, 35 to 30,000 years ago and were replaced by modern humans, say archaeologists.

Previous studies have argued that one of the key reasons for this is that modern humans had better hunting tools, providing them with the extra food they needed to survive the cold. But Gilligan disagrees that the development of hunting tools was so important to modern humans' survival over the Neanderthal since Neanderthals were already successful hunters,
surviving in Europe and Eurasia for over 100,000 years.

He says most of the tools supposed to have given modern humans the edge over Neanderthals were actually more useful for making warm clothes. The important tools developed by modern humans included stone blades, bone points, and later needles, which could cut and pierce hides to sew them together into multi-layered clothes including underwear, says Gilligan.

He says modern humans were more vulnerable to the cold than Neanderthals and developed these tools as far back as 90,000 years ago to cope with cooler parts of Africa, before the peak of the ice age. "This made them pre-adapted to the glacial maximum," says Gilligan. But Neanderthals were physically more resistant to the cold, he says.

Because of this they were quite happy before the ice age to get around in similar temperatures wearing little less than single-layered loosely-draped animal hides. This gave Neanderthals no pressing need to develop complex clothing, says Gilligan.

But when the peak of the ice age came, it was a shock.

Gilligan says climatic evidence shows in the lead up to the glacial maximum there were unusually sudden and massive swings in global temperatures over short periods of time.
Over brief periods, the average temperature would plunge by more than 10ÂșC and then warm again before plunging once again into ultra-cold territory, says Gilligan. He says Neanderthals were unable to adapt their clothing in response to such rapid climate change.

Gilligan says while there is evidence that some Neanderthals in France started to develop sewing tools, this would not have been enough to save the species. "You cannot develop complex clothing overnight," says Gilligan.


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