ST. PETERSBURG, Russia, Sept. 24 (UPI) -- Ancient Neanderthals may have gone extinct as a result of volcanic eruptions devastating their western Asian and European homelands, Russian researchers say.
A team led by archaeologist Liubov Golovanova of the ANO Laboratory of Prehistory in St. Petersburg says at least three volcanic eruptions about 40,000 years ago led to the end for the humanlike hominids, ScienceNews.org reports.
Modern humans survived because they lived in Africa and on the tip of southwestern Asia at that time, safely outside the range of volcanic ash clouds, Golovanova's group says.
That geographic good luck allowed Homo sapiens to move into Neanderthals' former territory after a couple of thousand years without having to compete with them for food and other resources, the research suggests.
Modern man's survival in harsh, post-volcanic habitats was possible with advances in stone tool making and other cultural innovations achieved shortly after 40,000 years ago, Golovanova and his colleagues suggest.
Evidence for the volcanic theory comes from soil, pollen, animal bones and stone tools from Mezmaiskaya Cave in southwestern Russia's Caucasus Mountains, Golovanova says.
Chemical analyses of soil layers in the Russian cave identified two types of volcanic ash suggesting separate volcanic eruptions in western Asia between 45,000 and 40,000 years ago.
Other researchers have reported evidence of an unusually large volcanic eruption in Italy around 40,000 years ago that created a "volcanic winter" that devastated the ecology of southern and eastern Europe.