Why Neanderthal man was far less tough than we were led to believe

NEANDERTHALS died out at least 9,000 years earlier than previously thought, research has shown.

• A skull of a 3ft-tall Hobbit whose brain may have shrunk as it evolved

A new carbon-dating method has revealed that the last Neanderthals roamed the planet about 37,000 years ago.

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Scientists behind the new research believe competition from modern-day humans, as well as changes in the planet's climate, led to their demise.

The new research by the University of Bristol focused on the date that the last remaining pocket of Neanderthals disappeared.

It showed these Neanderthals, south of the Cantabrian mountains and the Pyrenees in Europe, managed to survive for about 5,000 years after the rest of their race died out – but met their end at least 37,000 years ago.

According to the scientists, this new dating work counters speculation that Neanderthal populations could have remained in the Gibraltar area until 28,000 years ago.

Professor Joao Zilhao believes changes to the climate played an integral role in both the initial prolonged survival of these Neanderthals, and their ultimate demise.

At that time, modern day humans were spreading across the planet, engulfing areas where Neanderthals lived. However, Prof Zilhao believes a spell of global warming happened just in time to protect this pocket of Neanderthals in Europe for an extra 5,000 years. The warming climate caused impenetrable forests to grow, making it difficult to hunt herds of bison and reindeer, and acting as a barrier to the continuous spread of humans.

"The issue is why it took modern humans another 5,000 years to enter southwestern Iberia, leaving Neanderthals alone for 5,000 years," said Prof Zilhao.

"The dating work shows that this period of delayed Neanderthal survival in Iberia coincides with a growth of global warming. The hypothesis that I suggest is that this resulted in an expanse of forests, which are not very good for hunters."

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However, the spell of warming was followed by a period of cooling, which meant the forest cover was replaced by wide open plains. Conditions became perfect for humans to continue their spread, and the few remaining Neanderthals did not have a chance.

"There would have been conflict, and war and alliances but eventually the Neanderthals were absorbed," said Prof Zilhao.

The research is published in PloS One, a scientific journal from the Public Library of Science.

Small brains 'no problem' for Hobbits

BIGGEST is not always best as far as primate brains are concerned.

Findings by Cambridge University scientists challenge the view that as primates evolved their brains got bigger. They found that the brains of some lemurs and monkeys have shrunk, which may confer advantages in some conditions.

They also add to controversy surrounding the 3ft-tall "Hobbits" discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003.

Experts disagree over the classification of Homo floresiensis as a new human species.

The creatures lived on the island until 13,000 years ago. Some scientists maintain that their small heads and brains were probably the result of disease rather than evolution.

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The new evidence indicates there is no reason why Lilliputian humans should not evolve on an island with limited food resources where small size may be an advantage.