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Med Hypotheses. 2010 Jul;75(1):99-105. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2010.01.048. Epub 2010 Feb 20.

Did viral disease of humans wipe out the Neandertals?

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Institute of Virology, Helmholtz Center Munich, Research Center for Environmental Health, Ingolstaedter Landstrasse 1, D-85764 Neuherberg, Germany.


Neandertals were an anatomically distinct hominoid species inhabiting a vast geographical area ranging from Portugal to western Siberia and from northern Europe to the Middle East. The species became extinct 28,000 years ago, coinciding with the arrival of anatomically modern humans (AMHs) in Europe 40,000 years ago. There has been considerable debate surrounding the main causes of the extinction of Neandertals. After at least 200,000 years of successful adaption to the climate, flora and fauna of Eurasia, it is not clear why they suddenly failed to survive. For many years, climate change or competition with anatomically modern human (AMH) have been the leading hypotheses. Recently these hypotheses have somewhat fallen out of favour due to the recognition that Neandertals were a highly developed species with complex social structure, culture and technical skills. Were AMHs lucky and survived some catastrophe that eradicated the Neandertals? It seems unlikely that this is the case considering the close timing of the arrival of AMHs and the disappearance of Neandertals. Perhaps the arrival of AMHs also brought additional new non-human microscopic inhabitants to the regions where Neandertals lived and these new inhabitants contributed to the disappearance of the species. We introduce a medical hypothesis that complements other recent explanations for the extinction of Neandertals. After the ancestors of Neandertals left Africa, their immune system adapted gradually to the pathogens in their new Eurasian environment. In contrast, AMHs continued to co-evolve with east African pathogens. More than 200,000 years later, AMHs carried pathogens that would have been alien to pre-historic Europe. First contact between long separated populations can be devastating. Recent European and American history provides evidence for similar events, where introduction of viral, protozoan or bacterial pathogens to immunologically naïve populations lead to mass mortality and local population extinction. We propose that a virus, possibly from the family Herpesviridae, contributed to Neandertal extinction.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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