Species range shifts in Neanderthals

Miss Keziah Conroy1, Professor Robert Foley1

1University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom


Spatial information is a major element in palaeoanthropology, as fossils or archaeological site distributions reflect species or cultural extents and environmental relationships. However, most applications are descriptive, based solely on the fossil or archaeological record. Neo-ecologists have developed more formal models – species distribution models – that combine probabilistic parameters with distributions to provide a more robust and biologically meaningful estimates of distributions.

These models have great potential in the past. Where a neo-ecologist would use contemporary species occurrence records and environmental variables, along with future climate projections, a palaeoecologist could use fossil sites and palaeoclimate models to reconstruct past distributions.

This paper employs SDMs to explore distributions among hominins. Unlike Homo sapiens, our extinct relatives were unable to achieve a global distribution, and ultimately their ranges contracted to zero as they disappeared. Are the differences between H. sapiens and other hominins the result of different ecological tolerances, or differences in their use of these habitats? Did particular environmental conditions permit Homo sapiens to achieve a worldwide distribution? To what extent did environmental change contribute to the pattern of range shifts leading towards hominin extinctions?

To investigate these issues we present a complete, time-sliced record of Neanderthal fossil sites (n = 235) alongside their palaeoenvironmental context, derived from palaeoclimate modelling. The available GIS methods are used to define environmental controls fossil distributions. Models are constructed for range sizes and boundaries during cold and warm periods, and used to track the distance and directionality of range shifts and their environmental context.


Keziah Conroy is a PhD student at the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies at the University of Cambridge. Her PhD is focused on species range shifts in extinct hominins, using methods developed primarily for conservationists, to model and reconstruct the environmental controls on hominin species ranges and extinctions.

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