Scholars are turning the disappearance of humans’ closest cousins into a numbers game.
More than 150 years ago, German schoolteacher Johann Carl Fuhlrott realized that fossils from a local limestone quarry were almost, but not quite, human. More recently, scholars have expanded their research beyond bones and stones to figure out what became of the Neandertals. And a Danish physicist is taking an actuarial approach to the puzzle: Bent Sørensen of Roskilde University thinks numbers may explain why humans sit around today puzzling over the Neandertals’ fate, and not the other way around.
There have been two leading theories to date. One posits that increasingly wintry conditions gradually made life in Europe and Asia unbearable for the Neandertals until, about 30,000 years ago, they literally couldn’t take it anymore. The other points to the expansion of modern humans into the heart of Neandertals’ range beginning about 45,000 years ag