Fresh studies suggest that Neanderthals, an extinct species of humans who were widely distributed in ice-age Europe between circa 120,000 and 35,000 years ago, may have been infected by diseases carried out of Africa by humans. The prominent of these diseases are- (a) Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium that causing stomach ulcers which is estimated to have first infected humans in Africa 88 to 116 thousand years ago, and arrived in Europe after 52,000 years ago. The most recent evidence suggests Neanderthals died out around 40,000 years ago while another cause is (b) genital herpes caused by herpes simplex. It was transmitted to humans in Africa 1.6 million years ago from another, currently unknown hominin species that in turn acquired it from chimpanzees.
1. Humans inadvertently brought African diseases with them to Neanderthals.
Neanderthals adapted to the diseases of their European environment whereas the humans adapted to African diseases since they had come from Africa. This benefited humansas they received genetic components through interbreeding that protected them from some of these: types of bacterial sepsis – blood poisoning occurring from infected wounds – and encephalitis caught from ticks that inhabit Siberian forests.
2. Species of Hominin
Neanderthals across Europe may well have been infected with diseases carried out of Africa by a number of anatomically modern humans, or Homo sapiens. As both were species of hominin, it would have been easier for disease causing agents or pathogens to jump to and fro these species, say researchers. This might have been the actual reason of the wipeout of Neanderthals.
3. Interbreeding lead to spreading of diseases.
There is evidence that our ancestors interbred with Neanderthals and exchanged genes associated with disease. There is also evidence that viruses moved into humans from other hominins while still in Africa. So, the researchers argue that interbreeding is likely to have made the poor Neanderthals confront with what they’ve never been immune to.
4. Dr Charlotte Houldcroft, Cambridge’s Division of Biological Anthropology
Dr Charlotte Houldcroft, from Cambridge’s Division of Biological Anthropology, puts forward the theory that many of the infections might have passed from humans to Neanderthals – such as tapeworm, tuberculosis, stomach ulcers and types of herpes – are chronic diseases that would have weakened the hunter-gathering Neanderthals, making them less fit and unable to find food, which could have triggered the extinction of the species.
5. Dr Simon Underdown, a researcher in human evolution from Oxford Brookes University
In a paper in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Houldcroft, who also studies modern infections at Great Ormond Street Hospital, and Dr Simon Underdown, a researcher in human evolution from Oxford Brookes University, together write that genetic data on examination shows many infectious diseases have been “co-evolving with humans and our ancestors for tens of thousands to millions of years“.
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