Washington, Feb 28 : A new theory has suggested that the extinction of Neanderthals 30,000 years ago may have happened because of cannibalism among the group.
Though Neanderthals had emerged 250,000 years ago, their disappearance from the face of the Earth 30,000 years ago has long been a subject of mystery.
Now, a new theoretical model by Simon Underdown, a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Oxford Brookes University, has tried to resolve the longstanding mystery by attributing the cause of Neanderthal extinction to cannibalism.
According to Discovery News, Underdown studied a well-documented tribal group, the Fore of Papua New Guinea, who practiced ritualistic cannibalism, to come up with his theory.
Beginning in the early 1900's, anthropologists additionally began to take note of an affliction named Kuru among the Fore. By the 1960's, Kuru reached epidemic levels and killed over 1,100 people.
Subsequent investigations determined that Kuru was related to the Fore's cannibalistic activities and was a form of Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy, or TSE. This is a class of disease that includes mad cow disease.
According to Underdown, TSE's have been in existence for possibly millions of years.
TSE's cause brain tissue to take on an almost sponge-like appearance, caused by the formation of small holes during the development of the disease. The disease's latter stages often result in severe mental impairment, loss of speech and an inability to move.
Evidence for this was also uncovered in a French cave in 1999, which revealed Neanderthals likely practiced cannibalism.
The 100,000-120,000 year-old bones discovered at the cave site of Moula-Guercy near the west bank of the Rhone river suggested a group of Neanderthals defleshed the bones of at least six other individuals and then broke the bones apart with a hammerstone and anvil to remove the marrow and brains.
Although it's not clear why Neanderthals may have eaten each other, research on the Fore determined that maternal kin of certain deceased Fore individuals used to dismember corpses and regarded some human flesh as a valuable food source.
Based on his Kuru findings, Underdown created a theoretical model to figure out how the spread of such a disease via cannibalism could reduce a population's size.
"When added to other pressures, this type of disease could therefore have wiped out the Neanderthals," said Underdown.
"TSE's could have thinned the population, reducing numbers and contributing to their extinction in combination with other factors such as climate change and the emergence of modern humans," he added.