The amount of information we have about the human family tree is steadily growing, but there are still plenty of unanswered questions. One of the biggest mysteries is why our particular branch of human history was able to endure, while others like the Neanderthals were snuffed out. A new study by a group of researchers from multiple institutions in the US and Europe suggests that plunging temperatures may have been too much for Neanderthals to handle.

The work, which was published in Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, used observations of stalagmites that are tens of thousands of years old. The rocky formations can act as a sort of timeline of change, offering information on how climate patterns shifted over thousands and thousands of years.

In the paper, the scientists explain that a change appears to have taken place somewhere around 44,000 years back. During this time, they believe the climate began to grow colder over a period of thousands of years and remaining chilly for an extended period of time.

Temperatures eventually returned to where they were, but the archaeological record seems to indicate that many Neanderthals couldn’t push through the extended cold snap. These cold cycles repeated themselves, and each time they did things got worse for the Neanderthals.

“For many years we have wondered what could have caused their demise,” Dr Vasile Ersek of Northumbria University explains in a statement. “Were they pushed ‘over the edge’ by the arrival of modern humans, or were other factors involved? Our study suggests that climate change may have had an important role in the Neanderthal extinction.”

The study is one of the first to draw a clear link between natural climate change and the affect it may have had on the Neanderthal population. The researchers note that the number of tools made by Neanderthals during the suspected cold periods seems to have been very low, hinting at the possibility that the ancient people were having a very hard time coping with the changing world. With a greatly diminished population, the race was ultimately doomed to extinction, especially when our own human ancestors began expanding into new areas.

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