Geology Human evolution Intelligent Design

Did a magnetic field reversal doom the Neanderthals?

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So it wasn’t just climate change? That’s the claim in a recent closed-access paper in Science. We are told that the Earth reversed its poles in the Laschamp excursion 42,000 years ago.

A theory this exotic is bound to be popular. Archaeologist and anthropologist Anna Goldfield assesses the evidence. She points out that Neanderthals generally didn’t live in the areas where they’d be most affected.

However, by 42,000 years ago, Homo sapiens populations would have been living in many of the environments most affected by solar radiation (in Africa and elsewhere, between the equator and 40 degrees). It is very possible that the events triggered by the Laschamp excursion, combined with the effect of the grand solar minimum, may have made that region much less livable. This could have caused some Homo sapiens to flee and move into what had previously been mostly Neanderthal territory. Then, Neanderthal population success would certainly have been threatened.

The new article is fascinating, and it is entirely possible that a disruption of the Earth’s protective magnetic field may have added to an existing series of circumstances that were not in the Neanderthals favor. But headlines trumpeting that a magnetic pole switch killed off our ancient relatives are vastly oversimplifying the tremendously complex system in which Neanderthals and our Homo sapiens ancestors lived.

Life is messy—it always has been.

Anna Goldfield, “Did a Magnetic Field Reversal Doom Neanderthals?” at Sapiens March 4, 2021

 More explanations

In other words, all we really know for sure is that, as a distinct human type, Neanderthals died out. There is a bonanza of speculation as to why that happened. Some say current humans crowded them out. Others say it was due to interbreeding with current humans (of course, for a minority group, that is a form of crowding out, just not necessarily a violent one). Alternatively, they died before we even got there. Or succumbed to an early industrial revolution. But according to one account, Neanderthals kept us alive precisely because we inherited some of their genes, not that it did them much good.

Some researchers look for physiological clues. Neanderthals tended to have shorter lower legs than modern humans, which helped them move more efficiently in the hills.” But, others point out, they had weaker Achilles tendons, and therefore inferior running ability, which “hits at the crux of why Neanderthals went extinct.” According to some, their large eyes caused their demise (because “more of their brains were devoted to seeing in the long, dark nights in Europe, at the expense of high-level processing”). Apparently, they hung on a while in the Polar Urals in northern Russia. But we really don’t know for sure what happened to them.

Denyse O’Leary, Neanderthal Man: The Long-Lost Relative Turns Up Again, This Time with Documents, Evolution News and Views

We’ve probably missed a lot of explanations.

See also: US Prez accuses Texas and Mississippi governors of “Neanderthal thinking.” How about New York governor Cuomo packing nursing homes with COVID patients, which resulted in thousands of deaths? Now that we have channelled Neanderthal man anyway, does he have an opinion on that?

4 Replies to “Did a magnetic field reversal doom the Neanderthals?

  1. 1
    polistra says:

    These mechanical explanations, like large eyes halting thought, or differently shaped jaws making speech impossible, totally fail to account for adaptability and negative feedback. Obviously there are some ‘edge cases’ like a missing tongue or lemur eyes, but PURPOSE overcomes smaller variations. When the cerebellum is working well, physical stuff doesn’t get in the way.

  2. 2
    Fasteddious says:

    It isn’t just “possible, rather “It is very possible”, and then even, “entirely possible”, whatever that means. Add in the usual “may have” and “could have” and you are protected from being falsified, if anyone bothers with that these days,
    This underscores the recipe for success for unknown scientists looking for fame: think of two unrelated scientific subjects that have interesting recent advances, then combine them with an off-the-wall hypothesis, and publish an article hyping it up. Then send the article to all the popular science magazines out there, indicating your willingness to be interviewed about this hot new “theory”. Voila, instant publicity and fame.
    At least this article says Neanderthals were “a distinct human type”, acknowledging their humanity. They probably died from boredom listening to all the possible explanations for why they were dying out.

  3. 3
    Fasteddious says:

    I have often noted that the key to being published in Scientific American is to seriously combine evolution and climate change in the same article. If you can add a note blaming Trump then your publicity is guaranteed, even if you are just a lowly “science writer”.

  4. 4
    BobRyan says:

    Whatever happens when the poles reverse on Earth are mostly unknown, but it does not bring out an extinction level event. It was not even enough to bring an end to the last Great Ice Age.

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