Archaeologists have wondered for a long time what exactly caused Neanderthals to become extinct.
Although they have a long evolutionary history, the best known Neanderthals lived between 130,000 and 40,000 years ago. They evolved in Europe and Asia, while modern humans – us – were evolving in Africa.
Then, about 40,000 years ago, they became extinct. But we modern humans survived, although part of the Neanderthal DNA lives on in many of us today.
Now, a new study from the USA, suggests Neanderthals disappeared because of chronic ear infections.
Dr Samuel Márquez said: “It may sound far-fetched, but when we reconstructed the Eustachian tubes of Neanderthals we discovered they are remarkable similar to those of human infants.”
Ear infections are common in childhood and are easily treated now with antibiotics – not available to Neanderthal children. But Neanderthals seem to have been much more susceptible to ear infections, even as adults. Why?
By the age of five, human children’s Eustachian tubes lengthen and develop at a more acute angle, making it easier for the ear to drain. This greatly reduces the chance of developing a chronic ear infection past early childhood.
But the structure of Neanderthals’ Eustachian tubes did not change with age, making them susceptible to infections as adults.
And Dr Marquez, associate professor at Downstate Health Sciences University, said if left unchecked these infections could lead to many other kinds. And these could have killed Neanderthal people or left them at a huge disadvantage in a society where survival depended on the fittest.
*Image from Natural History Museum, London.