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What Happened to the Neanderthals?

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Read on to learn some various theories about what led to the Neanderthal extinction 40,000 years ago.

Read on to learn some various theories about what led to the Neanderthal extinction 40,000 years ago.

Why Did Neanderthals Go Extinct?

Our closest human relative lived alongside us for thousands of years but disappeared entirely around 40,000 years ago. The cause of the Neanderthal extinction has been debated by scholars, and various theories exist.

So, what really happened to the Neanderthals? This article discusses several factors that may have played a role:

  1. Competition
  2. Climate change
  3. Disease
  4. Natural Decline

Here we take a deeper look at the Neanderthals and what may have caused their demise.

Who Were the Neanderthals?

When did they live? 400,000 to 40,000 years ago
Where did they live? Europe, and Southwest and Central Asia
Scientific name: Homo Neanderthalensis (human from the Neander Valley)

Together with an Asian people known as the Denisovans, Neanderthals were our closest ancient human relative. We had a common ancestor that may have existed around 500,000 years ago.

Our species, Homo Sapiens, originated in Africa but migrated to the European continent, where we made contact with the Neanderthals.

What happened next is uncertain. A common belief is that we wiped them out, but the evidence doesn't support this.

What's certain is that Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals interbred. Many humans have at least 2% Neanderthal DNA.

How Did Neanderthals Survive in Their Environment?

Their physique was well suited to the colder climate of Europe. The short lower leg and lower arm bones reduced the skin's surface area, allowing it to conserve heat better.

As for food, evidence shows that Neanderthals were efficient hunters, capable of hunting at night as well as day. They also had a steady diet of plants and shellfish.

Neanderthal cave art in Le Moustiar, France.

Neanderthal cave art in Le Moustiar, France.

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How Smart Were Neanderthals?

They were certainly smarter than we give them credit for. Although the word 'Neanderthal' is commonly used as an insult to suggest primitive intelligence, their brains were larger than the modern average human's in proportion to their body size.

They crafted jewellery and created cave art. In fact, the oldest cave paintings yet discovered (at three different sites in Spain) date back to 64,000 years ago, which predates the arrival of Homo Sapiens in Europe, and thus must have been the work of Neanderthals.

When Were Neanderthals Discovered?

The partial skeleton of a Neanderthal was discovered in the Neander Valley in Germany in 1856. It was officially recognised as a different species of human and named as such in 1864.

Did Homo Sapiens Wipe Out the Neanderthals?

It's a grim prospect, yet it is one that cannot be entirely dismissed.

However, the archaeological evidence would suggest otherwise. The tooth of a Homo Sapien child dating back 54,000 years was discovered in France.

This predates the extinction of Neanderthals by over 10,000 years. So for thousands of years, Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals lived alongside each other. This contradicts the notion that Homo Sapiens conducted systematic extermination.

Neanderthal distribution.

Neanderthal distribution.

Then Why Did the Neanderthals Die Out?

A number of factors may have played a role:

Competition for Resources

Even if Homo Sapiens didn't actively wipe Neanderthals out, we would've been competing with them for resources nonetheless. Perhaps Homo Sapiens simply proved more efficient at hunting and gathering.

Natural Decline

There's evidence to suggest Neanderthals were already in decline long before they went extinct.

Ancient DNA recovered from fossils indicate that Neanderthals were lacking in diversity for at least 20,000 years leading up to their extinction. The genome of a female fossil recovered in the Altai Mountains shows signs of long-term inbreeding, likely a result of the dwindling population.

Climate Change

As mentioned earlier, the Neanderthal physique was suited to cold climates; and they were also accustomed to hunting ice-age animals.

Warming climates would have thrown this into disarray, as both the plants and animals that Neanderthals relied on died out.

Briana Pobiner, a paleoanthropologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, suggests that Homo Sapiens may have been less affected by climate change due to a wide trade network that enabled us to obtain the resources we needed from other areas.


A study published in the journal Nature Communications suggests a similar effect to when indigenous populations of America died out in large numbers from diseases brought across the sea by European invaders.

Home Sapiens and Neanderthals would have each carried unique illnesses to which the other lacked immunity. Homo Sapiens may have been less affected by this transmission because the Neanderthals carried less virulent diseases than those present in the tropical regions from which Homo Sapiens originated.

While the children of pairings between Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens would have inherited the required immune-related genes, the rest would've remained vulnerable.

According to the Stanford Journal:

"As these protective genes spread, the disease burden or consequences of infection within the two groups gradually lifted. Eventually, a tipping point was reached when modern humans acquired enough immunity that they could venture beyond the Levant and deeper into Neanderthal territory with few health consequences."

Neanderthal Legacy

Whatever the reason Neanderthals died out, they didn't completely disappear from the world. As mentioned earlier, their legacy remains in the DNA that a large portion of our species carries.


Hendry, Lisa. Who were the Neanderthals? Natural History Museum UK.

Multiple authors. 2018, February 23. U-Th dating of carbonate crusts reveals Neandertal origin of Iberian cave art.

Ghosh, Pallab. Neanderthal extinction not caused by brutal wipe out BBC

Than, Ker. 2019, November 7. Stanford scientists link Neanderthal extinction to human diseases. Stanford University.

Gibbons, John. 2015, August 11. Why did Neanderthals go extinct? Smithsonian Institution.

Gamillo, Elizabeth. 2021, September 22. To Understand Neanderthal Night-Hunting Methods.... Smithsonian Magazine.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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