Neanderthal population peaked just before they went extinct Reuters

The Neanderthal population in Germany exploded just before the species went extinct, a scientist has discovered. By looking at archaeological sites, Jürgen Richter showed the number of settlements had increased by more than 20 times towards the end of the Old Stone Age – or Middle Palaeolithic period.

In a study published in the journal Quaternary International, Richter showed how the number of settlements went from just four in the period between 110,000 to 70,000 years ago, to 94 between 60,000 and 43,000 years. In addition, he found that just 1,000 years after the end of the peak, there was a massive decline and Neanderthals disappeared.

Richter, from the University of Cologne, analysed artefacts found at the Neanderthal settlement to establish the population in Germany. He showed there were huge demographic fluctuations over the Middle Stone Age, with several migrations, population increases and declines. Areas of Germany would be abandoned then returned to several thousands of years later.

The peak of the population, however, came later on in Neanderthal history – in the last 20,000 years of their history: "The German Neanderthals must have disappeared just shortly after having reached the absolute maximum of their demographic evolution around 50,000 years ago," he wrote.

What eventually pushed the Neanderthals to extinction is not known. Currently, scientists have several ideas as to what caused their demise, including climate change and competition with humans.

While Richter's study does not answer this long-standing question, he said ever increasing research into Neanderthal populations will help shed light on the relationship between them and the landscape. "The future aim is to deliver a complete reconstruction of an annual cycle of activities and mobility within a territory in order to understand the composition of assemblages, the structures of sites and their location within the landscape before cultural affiliations can be evaluated," he said.