Thesis abstract ‘The Palaeodemographic Context of the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic Transition in Europe and the Extinction of Homo neanderthalensis’

03rd May 2014

Georgia Zadow

BA(Hons), Archaeology, School of Social Science, The University of Queensland, St Lucia, October 2013

The Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) are an extinct hominin species that inhabited Eurasia from 300,000 years to 25,000 years ago. Within 20,000 years of the arrival of modern human (Homo sapiens) populations in Eurasia, the entire Neanderthal population disappeared from the fossil record. The disappearance of the Neanderthals is explained by two competing hypotheses: (1) their inability to adapt to climate change, and (2) competition with anatomically modern humans.

This study tests these competing hypotheses through the analysis of bias-adjusted temporal frequency distributions from the European continent. Using the methods established by Surovell et al. (2009) to correct radiocarbon frequency distributions for taphonomic bias, this thesis produces the first continent-wide study of palaeodemography throughout Middle to Upper Palaeolithic Europe using the most extensive radiocarbon database available.

The analysis of temporal frequency distributions reveals the response of Neanderthal populations to climate change and to invading human populations. This thesis demonstrates that a demographic shift in Europe during the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition was not mediated by climate, and a rapid advance of modern human populations was not responsible for the subsequent decline of Neanderthal populations. Rather, the results of this thesis support hypotheses that the extinction of Neanderthals was a gradual and piecemeal process that took 20,000 years to reach its final conclusion. The cause of the Neanderthal extinction was therefore not a result of a population pulse. However, the length of this decline raises the possibility of long-term competition for resources and habitat, causing a gradual decline in Neanderthal populations.

Surovell, T.A., J.B. Finley, G.M. Smith, P.J. Brantingham and R. Kelly 2009 Correcting temporal frequency distributions for taphonomic bias. Journal of Archaeological Science 36(8):1715–1724.

June 2014
Type: Thesis abstract

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