Brookes research finds modern humans gave fatal diseases to Neanderthals

Friday, 10 April 2015

Dr Simon Underdown

The dominant theories surrounding the decline of the Neanderthals has been challenged by new research which suggests that rather than modern humans and environmental changes, it was actually infectious diseases which modern humans brought with them that may have caused their demise.

A new study by Dr Simon Underdown, Principal Lecturer in Biological Anthropology at Oxford Brookes and Dr Charlotte Houldcroft, Infectious Diseases Researcher at Cambridge has found that when modern humans migrated out of Africa and entered Europe, they brought with them new diseases that the Neanderthals had not encountered before and could not fight effectively.

The research consisted of analysing a number of recent studies on the genetics of Neanderthals and early modern humans, as well as an examination of genetic research dating the origins of common pathogens.  

As Neanderthal populations became more isolated they developed very small gene pools and this would have impacted their ability to fight off disease. When Homo sapiens came out of Africa they brought diseases with them.

Dr Simon Underdown, Principal Lecturer in Biological Anthropology

The research found evidence to suggest that the Neanderthals suffered from modern diseases that are still around today such as tuberculosis, typhoid, whooping cough, encephalitis and common colds.

In a recent article in the Daily Mail Online Dr Simon Underdown said: “'As Neanderthal populations became more isolated they developed very small gene pools and this would have impacted their ability to fight off disease.  When Homo sapiens came out of Africa they brought diseases with them.  

“We know that Neanderthals were actually much more advanced than they have been given credit for and we even interbred with them.  Perhaps the only difference was that we were able to cope with these diseases but Neanderthals could not.”

You can read the full article on the Daily Mail website.

The research findings also call into question when pathogen-caused diseases first came about.  Diseases were thought to have been passed from animals to humans, when humans started settling down into communities and farming animals around 11,000 years ago.  However this research suggests that it may have been the other way around with diseases originating 250,000 to 40,000 years ago when Neanderthals were the dominant primate species in Europe and Asia.

The findings from the study also add to a growing body of evidence that Neanderthals were not as different from modern humans as was originally thought.  Instead they had a sophisticated culture, wore jewellery, made tools and may even have had their own language.

The study entitled Neanderthal Genomics Suggests a Pleistocene Time Frame for the First Epidemiologic Transition is available to view on the open source database bioRxiv.

Dr Simon Underdown works for the Department of Social Sciences at Brookes.  You can find out more about the department on our website.