Dying young was not the most likely reason Neanderthals went extinct, according to a study that suggests early modern humans had about the same life expectancy as their ancient cousins.
Scientists have puzzled over why the Neanderthals disappeared just as modern humans were making huge gains and moving into new parts of Africa and Europe. Some have speculated that a difference in longevity may have been to blame.
If anything, higher fertility rates and lower infant mortality gave modern humans an advantage over the Neanderthals, who died off about 30,000 years ago, says the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences .
Scientist Erik Trinkaus of Washington University studied fossil records to get an idea of the life span of Neanderthals and early modern humans, who co-existed in different parts of the world for about 150,000 years.
He found about the same number of 20- to 40-year old adults in both populations, an indication that would reflect "similar patterns of adult mortality".
"All the samples have a dearth of older individuals, which should reflect a complex combination of low life expectancy for adults, demographic instability, and the demands of mobility," he says.
"If indeed there was a demographic advantage for early modern humans, at least during transitional phases of Late Pleistocene human evolution, it must have been the result of increased fertility and/or reduced immature mortality."
This latest study builds on previous research showing the similarities between Neanderthals and humans.