Were Humans Responsible for Neanderthal Extinction?



The phrase – ‘Survival of the Fittest’ as coined by Herbert Spencer probably fits well to this article. Human evolution has seen the transition of various scientific disciplines. The quest for dominance by humans may have led them to vanquish their weaker kinds. Here is an article published in Science Illustrated by Anthony Fordham which gives us some insights about what may have happened to the Neanderthals and in the conflict of Neanderthals vs Homo sapiens, how the latter became the dominant species.

Humans are responsible for some pretty terrible things (as well as some pretty great things) but most of the atrocities we feel properly bad about – the genocides, the slavery, and the epic wars – are at least perpetrated against our own species.

And as for all those animals we kill, eat, displace and drive extinct… at least they don’t really know what’s happening to them, right?

Yet there’s mounting evidence that not too long ago – in geological terms anyway – we systematically drove another intelligent species to extinction: the Neanderthal. As more fossils are uncovered, it seems that in the last million or so years, there were several species of intelligent human-like animals.

Modern humans are descended from a plains-dwelling ancestor probably originating from Africa. Neanderthals are different – squatter, more physically powerful, but less sophisticated in their tool-using, especially when it comes to weapons. Their hunting methods too, were possibly less effective than ours, and that might have spelled their doom.

Also Read – Earliest Human Cave Art Identified

As humans moved up into Europe, they followed an earlier migratory wave of Neanderthal. Let’s be clear – the difference between humans and Neanderthal is pretty minimal, sort of like the difference between horses and donkeys.

We could, and probably did, breed with them. But we also forced them out of their hunting grounds, drove them to the sea, and eventually killed them. Maybe we didn’t do it in the same way we practice genocide today.

Maybe Neanderthals simply slunk away whenever humans turned up, and eventually there were too many humans for the Neanderthal communities to survive. But human nature hasn’t changed much in thousands of years. I suspect we did hunt them down.

I think some of our earliest true wars would have been with Neanderthal tribes.

Lithe humans going up against a big, powerful but sadly dumber enemy. Overwhelming them with force of numbers or with clever traps. And it’s possible the Neanderthals weren’t our only victims. The evidence isn’t in yet, but it’s likely other species of hominid existed in places like China or South East Asia, and we out-competed them as well. Perhaps there simply isn’t room on a planet as small as Earth for more than one intelligent, technological species.

It certainly seems strange that humans are the only ”smart” animals, since for almost every other kind of animal you can think of, there are many different species. The explanation is grim, but obvious: there were, and we killed them. Remember, most of human history comes before we thought up the concept of history.

Our current civilization only goes back 2000-odd years. Then add another 2500 years for the Egyptians, and maybe go all the way back to 10,000 BC for the founding of Jericho and a few other settlements. But that’s only 12,000 years.

The modern human, as a species, could be as much as a million years old.

Nearly 90% of our past could still be waiting for us to discover or decipher. It’s a past populated by people who, if they were born today, would be physically indistinguishable from us (give or take some body hair).

It will be fascinating to see what other ideas and theories about our past we will uncover in the coming years.


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