Friday, March 07, 2008

Cannibalism Suspected in Neanderthal Mystery

According to one expert, quoted in a news piece at Australia’s ABC, "the story of Neanderthal extinction is one of the most intriguing in all of human evolution." So what happened? Competition with homo sapiens? Climate change? A plague?

A combination of factors probably wiped out the Neanderthals. But a new theory puts cannibalism at the top.

The news is based on the simple connection of two, distant dots. One, in 1999 researchers found evidence in a French cave that Neanderthals were likely cannibals. Dot two, research on a tribe in Papua New Guinea shows ritual cannibalism is causing a decimating disease that acts a lot like mad cow. The disease, known as "kuru" is part of a family of diseases (including mad cow) called "transmissible spongiform encephalopathy" (TSE).

TSEs are nasty, nasty diseases. They turn the brain into Swiss cheese. "TSEs cause brain tissue to take on an almost sponge-like appearance, caused by the formation of small holes during the development of the disease."

As it turns out, a TSE spread by cannibalism could have whittled Neanderthal populations down to a "non-viable level" in about 250 years.

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I started pound360 to channel my obsession with vitamins, running and the five senses. Eventually, I got bored focusing on all that stuff, so I came back from a one month hiatus in May of 2007 (one year after launching Pound360) and broadened my mumblings here to include all science.