Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Climate Change Likely Drove Our Ancestors to Extinction, Study Finds

Climate Change Likely Drove Our Ancestors to Extinction, Study Finds
Could the climate crisis drive Homo sapiens to extinction? An artist's illustration shows a desolate landscape, perhaps after global warming has rendered much of Earth inhospital to humans. MARK GARLICK / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY / Getty Images

Could the climate crisis drive Homo sapiens to extinction?

If history repeats itself, then maybe. In a study published in One Earth Thursday, scientists used a combination of the fossil record and climate modeling to determine that three early human species lost a significant chunk of their climate niche right before going extinct.

"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," lead author Pasquale Raia of Università di Napoli Federico II in Napoli, Italy said in a Cell Press press release published by Phys.org. "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."

The researchers looked at six early human species that had existed from the Pliocene to the Pleistocene epochs: Homo habilis, Homo ergaster, Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens. They compared 2,754 archeological findings with a climate emulator that determines rainfall, temperature and other factors over the last five million years in order to determine the climate niche for each species and whether it changed over time.

A climate niche is the sweet spot of climate conditions that are best suited to a given species' survival, New Scientist explained.

For Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis and Homo neanderthalensis, their climate niche shrunk just before extinction. Homo erectus, for example, went extinct during the last glacial period, which was the coldest period that species had ever experienced, the study said.

"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," Raia said in the press release. "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."

The researchers do think that, for Neanderthals, direct competition with modern humans combined with climate changes to push the species to the brink.

Other researchers who were not involved in the study cautioned that the fossil record is spotty for all of the species studied besides Neanderthals, which might mean that the species had longer lifespans or different climate niches than revealed in the study.

"Individuals belonging to these taxa lived at times, and in places, not sampled by the existing fossil record," Bernard Wood at George Washington University in Washington, DC told New Scientist.

The researchers did try to account for this somewhat by testing for two fossil records: a core fossil record including only remains known to belong to each species and an extended fossil record including unidentified remains that could have belonged to more than one species. They found that the climate niche shrunk before extinction for the three species in question no matter which record they used.

Rashtrapati Bhavan engulfed in smog, at Rajpath, on Oct. 12, 2020 in New Delhi, India. Biplov Bhuyan / Hindustan Times via Getty Images

An annual comprehensive report on air pollution showed that it was responsible for 6.67 million deaths worldwide, including the premature death of 500,000 babies, with the worst health outcomes occurring in the developing world, according to the State of Global Air, which was released Wednesday.

Read More Show Less

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

New research finds that dust in buildings with older furniture is more likely to contain a suite of compounds that impact our health. Aleksandr Zubkov / Getty Images

By Hannah Seo

If you've been considering throwing out that old couch, now might be a good time. Dust in buildings with older furniture is more likely to contain a suite of compounds that impact our health, according to new research.

Read More Show Less


Poor eating habits, lack of exercise, genetics, and a bunch of other things are known to be behind excessive weight gain. But, did you know that how much sleep you get each night can also determine how much weight you gain or lose?

Read More Show Less
Marine scientists who study seagrasses have published a study describing how to reintroduce eelgrass into Virginia coastal bays. Flickr / CC by 2.0

By Robert J. Orth, Jonathan Lefcheck and Karen McGlathery

A century ago Virginia's coastal lagoons were a natural paradise. Fishing boats bobbed on the waves as geese flocked overhead. Beneath the surface, miles of seagrass gently swayed in the surf, making the seabed look like a vast underwater prairie.

Read More Show Less
Landmark legislation aims to address the ocean impacts of human-caused global heating and reform federal ocean management. ToryYu1989 / PxHere / CC0

By Jessica Corbett

Leaders of climate and conservation groups on Tuesday welcomed House Democrats' introduction of landmark legislation that aims to address the ocean impacts of human-caused global heating and reform federal ocean management—recognizing that, as Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva put it, "a healthy ocean is key to fighting the climate crisis."

Read More Show Less

Support Ecowatch