Scientists claim to have finally solved the mystery as to how Neanderthals became extinct and they say it was because of ear infections. While at first thought it seems unlikely that something as simple as an ear infection could have wiped out an entire species, it’s actually quite plausible since they didn’t have the sophisticated medicine 40,000 years ago that we often take for granted today.
Neanderthals had smaller ears than those of modern humans; therefore, they were more prone to getting ear infections since the bacteria could easily become clogged up in the tiny space inside of their ears. Scientists believe that the ear infections could have led to more serious illnesses, such as having trouble breathing and hearing, as well as even developing pneumonia.
Professor Samuel Márquez from the Downstate Health Scientists University explained their findings, “It may sound far-fetched, but when we, for the first time, reconstructed the Eustachian tubes of Neanderthals, we discovered that they are remarkably similar to those of human infants.” He went on to say, “Middle ear infections are nearly ubiquitous among infants because the flat angle of an infant’s Eustachian tubes is prone to retain the otitis media bacteria that cause these infections – the same flat angle we found in Neanderthals.” Their findings were published in The Anatomical Record Journal and can be read in full here.
With modern humans, when children reach around five years of age, their Eustachian tubes start to get longer and the angle becomes more acute meaning that the ear can drain better thus eliminating constant ear infections. Unfortunately for Neanderthals, their Eustachian tubes did not change as they got older which meant that they still contracted continuous ear infections.
“It’s not just the threat of dying of an infection. If you are constantly ill, you would not be as fit and effective in competing with your Homo sapien cousins for food and other resources,” Márquez said, adding, “In a world of survival of the fittest, it is no wonder that modern man, not Neanderthal, prevailed.”
Dr. Richard Rosenfeld weighed in by stating, “This new and previously unknown understanding of middle ear function in Neanderthals is what allows us to make new inferences regarding the impact on their health and fitness.”
It’s hard to image that a common illness such as an ear infection could have killed off the Neanderthals, but based on these new findings, it could very well have been the reason for their mysterious extinction around 50,000 years ago.