A study of ancient volcanic ash found at key archaeological sites suggests that Neanderthals (pictured) and early modern humans were more resilient to climate change and natural disasters than is often assumed.


John Lowe at the Royal Holloway University of London in Egham, UK, and his colleagues analysed microscopic shards of volcanic ash from a major eruption that occurred in Europe some 40,000 years ago. The volcano spewed so much climate-cooling ash that the event probably created winter-like conditions. Because the researchers found the ash at several archaeological sites in Europe and North Africa, they were able to link events in Neanderthal and human evolution with the timing of climatic changes. Early modern humans started to displace Neanderthals from parts of Europe before the eruption and subsequent cooling, and their activities appear to have been unaffected by these events. Indeed, in parts of central and eastern Europe, Neanderthals seem to have become extinct well before the eruption occurred.

Early modern humans probably placed greater pressure on Neanderthals than did volcanic eruptions or climate change, the researchers suggest.

Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1204579109 (2012)