Early Human Species Likely Driven to Extinction by Climate Change

Climate Change Human Extinction Concept

A study combining climate modeling and fossils record suggests that climate change, and the difficulty in adapting to temperature shifts, played a significant role in the extinction of our ancient ancestors.

Of the six or more different species of early humans, all belonging to the genus Homo, only we Homo sapiens have managed to survive. Now, a study reported in the journal One Earth today (October 15, 2020) combining climate modeling and the fossil record in search of clues to what led to all those earlier extinctions of our ancient ancestors suggests that climate change — the inability to adapt to either warming or cooling temperatures — likely played a major role in sealing their fate.

“Our findings show that despite technological innovations including the use of fire and refined stone tools, the formation of complex social networks, and — in the case of Neanderthals — even the production of glued spear points, fitted clothes, and a good amount of cultural and genetic exchange with Homo sapiens, past Homo species could not survive intense climate change,” says Pasquale Raia of Università di Napoli Federico II in Napoli, Italy. “They tried hard; they made for the warmest places in reach as the climate got cold, but at the end of the day, that wasn’t enough.”

To shed light on past extinctions of Homo species including H. habilis, H. ergaster, H. erectus, H. heidelbergensis, H. neanderthalensis, and H. sapiens, the researchers relied on a high-resolution past climate emulator, which provides temperature, rainfall, and other data over the last 5 million years. They also looked to an extensive fossil database spanning more than 2,750 archaeological records to model the evolution of Homo species’ climatic niche over time. The goal was to understand the climate preferences of those early humans and how they reacted to changes in climate.

Their studies offer robust evidence that three Homo species — H. erectus, H. heidelbergensis, and H. neanderthalensis — lost a significant portion of their climatic niche just before going extinct. They report that this reduction coincided with sharp, unfavorable changes in the global climate. In the case of Neanderthals, things were likely made even worse by competition with H. sapiens.

“We were surprised by the regularity of the effect of climate change,” Raia says. “It was crystal clear, for the extinct species and for them only, that climatic conditions were just too extreme just before extinction and only in that particular moment.”

Raia notes that there is uncertainty in paleoclimatic reconstruction, the identification of fossil remains at the level of species, and the aging of fossil sites. But, he says, the main insights “hold true under all assumptions.” The findings may serve as a kind of warning to humans today as we face unprecedented changes in the climate, Raia says.

“It is worrisome to discover that our ancestors, which were no less impressive in terms of mental power as compared to any other species on Earth, could not resist climate change,” he said. “And we found that just when our own species is sawing the branch we’re sitting on by causing climate change. I personally take this as a thunderous warning message. Climate change made Homo vulnerable and hapless in the past, and this may just be happening again.”

Reference: “Past Extinctions of Homo Species Coincided with Increased Vulnerability to Climatic Change” by Pasquale Raia, Alessandro Mondanaro, Marina Melchionna, Mirko Di Febbraro, Josè A.F. Diniz-Filho, Thiago F. Rangel, Philip B. Holden, Francesco Carotenuto, Neil R. Edwards, Matheus S. Lima-Ribeiro, Antonio Profico, Luigi Maiorano, Silvia Castiglione, Carmela Serio and Lorenzo Rook, 15 October 2020, One Earth.
DOI: 10.1016/j.oneear.2020.09.007

This work was supported by MCTIC/CNPq/FAPEG.

23 Comments on "Early Human Species Likely Driven to Extinction by Climate Change"

  1. I had no idea ancient man had so many SUV’s it led to climate change. you learn something new every day.

  2. So there have been several extinctions of Homo Species caused by climate change in the past but this time it’s our fault? Really, this article should be titled “Climate change is happening and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

  3. Seems the title is a little click-baitey. There’s no connection between the idea of freezing temperatures making life impossibly hard for Neanderthals and our own potential fate… most pointedly because we’re not only resistant to excessive heat, but we could experience a global freeze/heat spell significantly worse than what they ever experienced without suffering significant population impacts. If we can farm it, we will eat it, even if it’s some kind of lizard that’s highly resistant to temperatures. If life is sustainable, we will be fine. To say otherwise implies that we’re going to push climate into the territory of inability to sustain life.

  4. Torbjörn Larsson | October 16, 2020 at 1:54 pm | Reply

    I usually don’t make much of niche construction, but this seems solid method (as well as lots of data and checks).

    The metric used was the overlap between niche data at a specific time interval (of 1-2 kyrs) and locale, and the aggregated niche data over the species lifetime and locales. The niche data was “(1) minimum seasonal temperature, (2) maximum seasonal temperature, (3) minimum seasonal precipitation, (4) maximum seasonal precipitation, and (5) net primary productivity”.

    For three – H. erectus, H. heidelbergensis, H. neanderthalensis – of six species – H. habilis, H. ergaster, H. sapiens, H. erectus, H. heidelbergensis, H. neanderthalensis – the overlap dwindles from the usual range, typically 50 – 75 %, to 25 – 50 % at the very end.

    They do check for dating problems, and it doesn’t essentially affect the niche behavior (of the marked end drop). We’ll see what genome data on some of the species (Neanderthals) can tell us on climate stress (loss of diversity).

  5. Torbjörn Larsson | October 16, 2020 at 2:04 pm | Reply


    “ancient man had so many SUV’s it led to climate change.”

    Of course they hadn’t, it was natural climate change as opposed to the 1,000 times faster from current man made global warming. But it may be a good way how to know the difference. 😉

    “this article should be titled “Climate change is happening and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

    The second doesn’t follow the first. In fact, since we know we are driving the current man made global warming, we also know we could stop doing that.

    “Seems the title is a little click-baitey. … If life is sustainable, we will be fine. To say otherwise implies that we’re going to push climate into the territory of inability to sustain life.”

    Not the title, that is in your reading, but the article is speculative – with all right since obviously from their data humans are prone to these sorts of extinctions.’

    Yes, to teh latter, it is what some scientists are afraid of – the correlation between the man made global warming with its unpreceneted rates – adaptation only go so fast – and the recently observed 6th large mass extinction (by trend rates, obviously it isn’t much retrospective yet). The plants (and animals) we use for food are optimized for the current climate as well, so it costs any which way…

  6. It’s a shame that “with all that technology” they had back then and didn’t use it to protect themselves. Isn’t that an itty bitty tiny criteria worth mentioning?

  7. … early humans needed to overcome so many obstacles in order to survive, one of the toughest was cold, but some did survive after all.
    However, that might add up to their skills and with evolution some individuals that were better at adapting to those conditions might survive and carry the genes that were better at guessing the future and how to prepare for longer winters and that way develop strategic planing too…

  8. No SUVs back then… but there was probably plenty of denialism… cause and effect?

  9. so by accelerating warming, turns out we are preventing the next ice age that would have killed us all. brilliant

  10. Dr. Jim Williams | October 18, 2020 at 8:09 am | Reply

    Hahaha, H. sapiens is currently in the process of a deadly state of denial/ignorance and complacency, such that it will bring about another elimination of most, if not all, of the world’s population, along with many other species of animals and plants via global warming —-> ice age —> re-balancing of sustainability of the remaining different species of plants and animals on this ‘good Earth’. Which, in fact, is not as good as it once was; in all liklihood, it never will be again!!!

  11. Torbjörn Larsson | October 18, 2020 at 3:36 pm | Reply

    @xABBAAA: “However, that might add up to their skills and with evolution some individuals that were better at adapting to those conditions might survive and carry the genes that were better at guessing the future …”

    Seems to me you think evolution is a process in individuals and can be goal directed (but maybe you mean that the genes allow individuals to better anticipate the future). But the process of biology happens over populations of organisms by changing allele frequencies- A simple model is that of a bath tub of different alleles across the population, where mechanisms such as mutation, recombination and migration may increase allele variation, while mechanisms such as selection, genetic drift and inbreeding may decrease it. Since variation happens first it is indifferent to selection – else you would have a process that breaks causality of physics – and cannot anticipate “future need”. It is a mix between mechanisms of random variation and contingency and non-random selection.

    @jj334: “so by accelerating warming, turns out we are preventing the next ice age that would have killed us …”.

    Says who? The 1,000 times faster than natural climate change that is the current man made global warming forcing of (mainly) CO2 release is much more risky and costly – it is already cheaper to curb CO2 emissions sez economists.

    @Dr. Jim Williams: “H. sapiens is currently in the process of a deadly state of denial/ignorance and complacency, such that it will bring about another elimination …”.

    Says who – with numbers, i.e. where is the science that says it? “It is very hard to predict, especially the future.”

  12. Climate change (not caused by a species) caused that species to go extinct. Our species is changing the climate ergo? Well actually ergo nothing at all. There is no logically valid conclusion. You can’t even reliably conclude that causing no change (the zero foot print dogma) is preferable.

  13. @Torbjörn Larsson
    “Seems to me you think evolution is a process in individuals and can be goal directed”
    … it is obvious that you don’t understand the stuff I am talking about, or you are trying to miss interpret what I said.
    This probably comes from disrespect on your side, some people like to see conclude stuff that is not in the text.
    It is bit like algorithms, if you are getting this point better. You take some and in first generation some survive, some day off. Then some mutations happen and you add to that, then this process repeats over time and you end up with a populations that has developed some common stuff.
    If you are not sure what I meant, well that is not my issue. There is no beauty, to be in the eye of a beholder…

  14. The Sun is what is responsible for climate change. End of story!

  15. If h sapiens were half as intelligent as they think they are we wouldn’t be having this conversation

  16. So we are pretending that the past climate change, which is the ice age, is comparable to today’s climate condition?

  17. Dave C. (Biden 2020) | October 20, 2020 at 7:29 pm | Reply

    Please reference the specific peer reviewed studies that show 1000x accelerated change. Hint: You can’t because their is nothing to compare it to. The cyclical climate change of the earth will continue with or without external influence. There is no compelling science that can suggest, let alone prove, that influence from man is driving the inevitable change in the earth’s climate. 60 years ago you liberals were warning us that we were causing the next ice age. Today it’s warming. We have at most 250 years worth of quality climate records. Anyone that believes that they can predict the future based on a blip in time hasn’t watched the local weather report. Those “scientists” can’t even accurately predict what the weather will be like next week, forget about next year, decade, or century.

  18. Skeeter McClusky | October 21, 2020 at 3:50 am | Reply

    How does this relate to the 12,000 year solar cycle (which brings times of cooling or heating) and the 2500 year earth wobble (which turns the Sahara Desert into a tropical rain forest); or the periodic changes in ocean currents which change climate???

    Recent archeological discoveries in Israel and Egypt confirm biblical stories of lush greenery in what is now desert. Multitudes of other “science” disputes man-made climate change such as the recent discovery of an 800 year old penguin population existing on a rocky area on Antarctica’s coast recently revealed by melting ice, proving the ice shelf had melted to the same “catastrophic” degree (pun intended) in recent geologic history.
    Science has abandoned logic and common sense to propel an agenda.

  19. … in short, there are a cycles that can affect a climate big time, and there are some other events like: some cosmic events, mega volcano, etc…
    … the Earth is bit complicated, so you have a crust that is a very dynamic thing, this means that we might not ever, ever,… ever find the Atlantis, even though there was a place called Atlantis.
    Why? Well, the crust will go over other crust, some will go under other crust and even though the moves can be only inch or two, over century it builds up, and over 1000 years it is a good area, and over 10 000 there is a bit of change.
    Sometimes people do some errors, take the coast of the earth we, now live in. It was way different over a long time periods…
    … The climate could have greater influence on the people brains, too. If one lives in area where the climate is more hot one gets bit more lazy, and if you leave in the area where is more mild you fill more diligent, it is just more easy to work in short. Then you apply that to a large number of people, one could see how that could influence all of the population living in some area. The climate change has been a large impact on the human civilization, just how much?…
    … a driver of change, a force that runs the show behind the scenes…

  20. … and we know how to pound on it,
    It might be a reason why some civilizations come to their peak at certain time, and then climate changes and civilization is not so great any more. Just on average more people will be thinking about: innovations, generating surplus, etc…

  21. … And since the Berlin wall was torn apart, it seams like some mental blockades are still present.
    So? What do I mean by that.
    Well, one would need to know the results of long running experiment called designed by “Dmitry Konstantinovich Belyayev (Russian: Дми́трий Константи́нович Беля́ев, 17 July 1917 – 14 November 1985)” and the outcome that is important…
    … Another interesting phenomenon is with populations of animals that live on separated island, …

  22. For the smartest, most advanced species that we are meant to be. with all our technology,, modern sciences, medicines, inventions and other such amazing mind blowing knowledge that We have managed to gather, store and analyse. The year 2021 the outcome is the planet is now on the verge of ANOTHER catastrophic planetary extinction! The rush for Space travel, finding water and life sustainability on other planets? Is this because our own planet is doomed. Us as the most powerful and advanced human existence ever are that smart we have created our own demise. You see I do not understand all these massive sustainable issues causing global Warming, major planetary survival problems. From the inner depths of our planet to the outer realms of the solar system and beyond. Us Mankind created this mess and now it’s mankind expressing the urgency to rectify this destruction. PROBLEM REACTION SOLUTION. Can’t work out who or what’s to blame or is it just a reoccurring theme, the simple Workings and cycle of our planet? Time after time we heat up, freeze, flood. Super continents come and go. Land mass and a forever geographical change with our Earth .

  23. After reading through everything in the comments it is basically “what will be will be” the world leaders will always want to control. The 1% will forever take what they want out of everything and every one. Not bothering whilst sat in there ivory towers now wanting to be put on other planets looking down on the mess they have created all in the name of progress and revolutionary science and technology for the greater good. Pointing and blaming everything and others except themselves. No thoughts of the Consequences if in denial of there part in world and planetary extensions. As I’m quite sure all the digging and fracking, the uses of pollutants and harmful chemicals they forget they dump from country to country. Charities for animals starving children saving the whales medicines to the real needy food for the masses the list is long and endless with billions in the bank’s accumulating interest and CEO,s on fat cat payrolls. Whilst chopping through rain forests or globally building on, digging up or bombing to bits any bit of land that they can all get a price tag on. Hiding behind the excuses of WORLD PEACE and not. forgetting religion. World wildlife, oceans and it’s inhabitants, GM crops and DNA manipulation. Over population the amount of world and separate country crisis agendas, It’s all. gone way too far off balance, disastrously wrong on this Earth to ever get any form of a grip to re-write the wrongs with humanity. The planetary health is screwed forget the eco sustainability. This whole world restart agenda and theory needs to start like it has in the past over and over in whichever way it happens ice age, flooding, or a complete grand finale.

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