The popular theory has it that humans soon displaced Neanderthals thanks to their superior skills and adaptations. But mathematicians Armando Neves at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and Maurizio Serva at the University of Aquila, Italy, now say that the extinction of Neanderthals may have been down to a genetic lottery.
When two populations interbreed, one of them can go extinct simply due to the random mixing of their genes through sexual reproduction.
To find out if this could have wiped out Neanderthals, Neves and Serva modelled the populations that met in the Middle East. Using very few assumptions, they estimated the rate of interbreeding that would lead to the observed share of Neanderthal DNA.
Story: Mark Buchanan, NewScientist | Photo: Frank Franklin, II/AP/PA