Around 600,000 years ago, humanity split into two. A group developed among us, living in Africa. The other occupied the land, becoming Asia, then Europe, Homo neanderthalensis – Neanderthal. They were not our ancestors, but a sister species, developing in parallel.
Neanderthals fascinate us for what they tell us about ourselves – who we were, and who we can be. It is tempting to see them in silly terms, living in peace with nature and each other, such as in the Garden of Adam and Eve.
If so, perhaps humanity’s feelings – especially our territoriality, violence, war – are not innate, but are modern inventions.
Biology and paleontology portray a darker picture. Peaceful, far from Neanderthal, were skilled warriors and dangerous warriors, rivals only by modern humans.
Predatory land mammals are territorial, particularly pack-hunters. Like lions, wolves and Homo sapiens, Neanderthal co-operatives were big game hunters. These predators, seated atop the food chain, have some predators of their own, so superficiality on the basis of prey causes conflict. Neanderthal faced the same problem; If other species did not control their numbers, there would be conflict.
The roots of this regionalism lie deep in humans. Territorial conflicts are also acute in our close relatives, the chimpanzees. Males regularly attack sparrows and kill males from rivals, behaving like human warfare.
This means that cooperative aggression developed in the common ancestor of chimpanzees and in itself, 7 million years ago. If so, Neanderthal would have inherited these same tendencies for cooperative aggression.
All too human
War is an intrinsic part of being human. War is not a modern invention, but an ancient, fundamental part of our humanity. Historically, all people warned. Our oldest writings are full of war stories. Archeology reveals ancient forts and battles, and sites of prehistoric massacres have been around for millennia.
Making war is humane – and we loved Neanderthal. We are equally in our skull and skeletal anatomy, and comprise 99.7 percent of our DNA.
By practice, Neanderthals were as amazing as us. They set fire to the dead, buried their dead, ornaments made from the seashore and animal teeth, created artwork and stone temples. If Neanderthal shared many of our creative instincts, he probably shared many of our destructive instincts as well.
The archaeological record confirms that Neanderthal life was anything but peaceful.
neanderthalensis There were skilled large game hunters, using spears to take deer, ibex, elk, bison, even rhinos and giant animals. It defies belief that if they endanger their families and lands, they will hesitate to use these weapons. Archeology suggests that such conflicts were common.
Prehistoric war marks leave signs. An effective way to hit a club on the head – clubs are fast, powerful, accurate weapons – so prehistoric Homo sapiens Repeated trauma to the skull. So do Neanderthal as well.
Another sign of war is the parry fracture, which breaks the lower arm that closes the warp. Neanderthals also show a lot of broken weapons. At least one Neanderthal was anchored to the chest by a spear from the Shanidhar cave in Iraq.
Trauma was particularly common among young Neanderthal men, as were deaths. Some injuries could have been suffered in the hunt, but the pattern matches those predicted for those engaged in inter-regional warfare — in small-scale, prolonged conflict, guerrilla-style raids and ambushes. War, rare war with war.
War leaves a subtler mark as territorial boundaries. The best evidence that Neanderthal not only fought but excelled in battle is that they met us and did not end immediately. Instead, for nearly 100,000 years, Neanderthal opposed modern human expansion.
Why would it take us so much time to leave Africa? Not because the environment was hostile, but because Neanderthals were already flourishing in Europe and Asia.
It is very unlikely that modern humans met Neanderthals and decided to just live and live. If nothing else, population growth inevitably forces humans to acquire more land, ensuring enough territory for their children to hunt and feed.
But an aggressive military strategy is also a good evolutionary strategy.
Instead, for thousands of years, we must have tested their fighters and for thousands of years we kept losing. In weapons, strategy, strategy, we were quite evenly matched.
Neanderthal probably had strategic and tactical advantages. They had occupied the Middle East for millennia, undoubtedly gaining intimate knowledge of the terrain, weather, how to stay away from native plants and animals.
In battle, his massive, muscular build would have made him destructive fighters in nearby quarters. The prospect of his huge eyes gave Neanderthal better low-light vision, allowing him to maneuver in the dark for ambush and dawn impressions.
Finally, the deadlock broke and the tide shifted. We do not know why. It is possible that the invention of better rounded weapons – bow, javelin, club thrower – is made lightly. Homo sapiens Distress Stocky Neanderthal from a distance using a hit-and-run strategy.
Or perhaps better hunting and gathering techniques Sapiens Feed large tribes, creating numerical superiority in battle.
Even after being primitive Homo sapiens It took more than 150,000 years to conquer the Neanderthal land, migrating out of Africa 200,000 years ago. In Israel and Greece, the ancient Homo sapiens Only before the final invasion by the modern, Neanderthal took the ground to fall back against the defendants Homo sapiensStarted 125,000 years ago and finished them.
This was not a blitzkrieg, as one would expect that Neanderthals were either pacifists or inferior warriors, but prolonged warfare. Ultimately we won. But it was not because they were less willing to fight. In the end, we probably became better at war than they were.
Nicholas R. Longrich, Senior Lecturer in Evolutionary Biology and Paleontology, University of Bath.
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