Why did the Neanderthals suddenly go extinct 40,000 years ago?
We may never know for certain the answer to that provocative question. But a remarkable new study published this month suggests that our prehistoric rivals were done in not by epidemics or climate change -- as some have argued -- but because their limited culture made it hard to compete with the modern humans who joined them on the European continent around 45,000 years ago.
The mathematical models at the heart of the study showed that when two groups are locked in competition with one another, the one with the more advanced culture can "invade and overwhelm" the other even if the latter has more members, Dr. Marcus Feldman, a Stanford University biologist and a co-author of the paper, told The Huffington Post in an email.
"The 'culture' here might represent hunting skill, communication ability, or ability to cope with an environmental contingency," Feldman said. And then there's the possibility of direct physical combat between Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens.
"Presumably there was a lot of violence going on at that time," Feldman said in a written statement. "I assume it wasn't only constructive things done with tools. A hand axe can be used for constructive purposes and destructive purposes."
Were Neanderthals just much less intelligent than modern humans? Feldman pooh-poohed that idea.
"There is no need to invoke genetic superiority," Feldman said in the email. And as Newsweek reported, Feldman acknowledges other research suggesting that both hominid species had similar brainpower.
But the model showed that the arrival of modern humans on the scene meant almost certain doom for Neanderthals, who had been living there for hundreds of thousands of years.
Of course, even if Neanderthals as a species died out, their genes live on. Research has shown that everyone alive today whose ancestry is from outside of Africa has a bit of Neanderthal DNA.
The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.