Impact of climate change on the transition of Neanderthals to modern humans in Europe
A causality between millennial-scale climate cycles and the replacement of Neanderthals by modern humans in Europe has tentatively been suggested. However, that replacement was diachronous and occurred over several such cycles. A poorly constrained continental paleoclimate framework has hindered identification of any inherent causality. Speleothems from the Carpathians reveal that, between 44,000 and 40,000 years ago, a sequence of stadials with severely cold and arid conditions caused successive regional Neanderthal depopulation intervals across Europe and facilitated staggered repopulation by modern humans. Repetitive depopulation–repopulation cycles may have facilitated multiple genetic turnover in Europe between 44,000 and 34,000 years ago.Two speleothem stable isotope records from East-Central Europe demonstrate that Greenland Stadial 12 (GS12) and GS10—at 44.3–43.3 and 40.8–40.2 ka—were prominent intervals of cold and arid conditions. GS12, GS11, and GS10 are coeval with a regional pattern of culturally (near-)sterile layers within Europe’s diachronous archeologic transition from Neanderthals to modern human Aurignacian. Sterile layers coeval with GS12 precede the Aurignacian throughout the middle and upper Danube region. In some records from the northern Iberian Peninsula, such layers are coeval with GS11 and separate the Châtelperronian from the Aurignacian. Sterile layers preceding the Aurignacian in the remaining Châtelperronian domain are coeval with GS10 and the previously reported 40.0- to 40.8-ka cal BP [calendar years before present (1950)] time range of Neanderthals’ disappearance from most of Europe. This suggests that ecologic stress during stadial expansion of steppe landscape caused a diachronous pattern of depopulation of Neanderthals, which facilitated repopulation by modern humans who appear to have been better adapted to this environment. Consecutive depopulation–repopulation cycles during severe stadials of the middle pleniglacial may principally explain the repeated replacement of Europe’s population and its genetic composition.