About 600,000 years ago, humans split in two. A group that stayed in Africa grew into us. The other attacks on land, into Asia, then Europe, becomes Homo neanderthalensis – Neanderthals. They are not our ancestors, but a sister species, evolved in parallel.
The Neanderthals fascinate us for what they tell us about ourselves – who we are and who we could have become. It was fascinating to see them in the idyllic things, living in peace with nature and together, just like Adam and Eve in the Garden.
If so, maybe the evils of humanity – especially territoriality, violence, war – are not innate but modern inventions.
Biology and paleontology paint a darker picture. Far from peace, the Neanderthals can be skilled warriors and dangerous warriors, only modern humans can rival.
Hunting land mammals are territorial, especially predators. Like lions, wolves and homo sapiensNeanderthals are cooperative hunters in the grand game. These predators, sitting at the top of the food chain, have few of their own predators, so overpopulation leads to conflict over the hunting grounds. Neanderthals faced a similar problem; if other species do not control their numbers, a conflict will arise.
This territoriality is deeply rooted in humans. Territorial conflicts are also fierce in our closest relative, the chimpanzee. Male chimpanzees often team up to attack and kill males from rival gangs, a striking behavior resembling human war.
This implies that a cooperative fervor developed from the chimpanzee̵7;s common ancestors and ourselves, 7 million years ago. If so, the Neanderthals would inherit similar tendencies toward aggressive cooperation.
All too human
War is an intrinsic part of man. War is not a modern invention, but an ancient, fundamental part of our humanity. In history, all peoples war. Our oldest works are full of war stories. Archeology reveals ancient forts and battles, and sites of prehistoric massacres spanning millennia.
To war it is human – and the Neanderthals are very much like us. We are very anatomically similar to the skull and bone, and share 99.7% of our DNA in common.
Behaviorally, the Neanderthals are amazingly like us. They set fires, bury their dead fashion trinkets from shells and animal teeth, and make artworks and stone temples. If the Neanderthals shared a lot of our creative instincts, they probably also shared many of our destructive instincts.
Archaeological records confirm the Neanderthals’ life was anything but peaceful.
Neanderthalensis are large skilled hunters who use spears to defeat deer, ibex, elk, bison, even rhinos and mammoths. It defies beliefs to think that they will hesitate to use these weapons if their families and land are in danger. Archeology shows such conflicts are pervasive.
Prehistoric warfare leaves remarkable signs. The head stick is an effective way to kill people – the baton is such a fast, powerful, accurate weapon – since prehistoric times. homo sapiens often present with traumatic brain injury. So did the Neanderthals.
Another sign of war is a transverse fracture, a fracture of the lower arm due to dodging. The Neanderthals also showed a lot of broken arms. At least one Neanderthal, from the Shanidar Cave in Iraq, was stabbed with a spear in the chest.
Injuries are especially common in young Neanderthal men, as well as fatalities. Some trauma can be encountered while hunting, but the patterns match what is predicted for a people engaged in inter-departmental warfare – small-scale but tense, protracted conflict Wars are dominated by guerrilla-style raids and ambushes, with rarer battles.
Resistance of the Neanderthals
War leaves a more subtle imprint in the form of territorial boundaries. The best proof that the Neanderthals not only fought but excelled in war, is that they met us and were not defeated immediately. Instead, for about 100,000 years, the Neanderthals resisted modern human expansion.
Why did it take so long for us to leave Africa? Not because of a hostile environment, but because the Neanderthals thrived in Europe and Asia.
It is very unlikely that modern humans meet the Neanderthals and decide to just live and allow. If nothing else, population growth inevitably forces humans to acquire more land, securing enough territory to hunt and forage for their children.
But an aggressive military strategy is also a good evolutionary strategy.
Instead, for thousands of years, we have to test their fighters, and for thousands of years, we continually lose. In terms of weapons, tactics, and strategies, we are pretty even.
The Neanderthals probably had a tactical and strategic advantage. They have occupied the Middle East for millennia, surely gaining in-depth knowledge of the topography, seasons, and ways of life thanks to native plants and animals.
In battle, their large, muscular bodies must have made them devastating in close combat. Their giant eyes were able to provide Neanderthals with remarkable low-light visibility, allowing them to maneuver in the dark to ambush and raid at dawn.
In the end, the deadlock was broken, and the tide changed. We don’t know why. Maybe the invention of superb long-range weapons – bows, arrows, spears, throwing clubs – light craft homo sapiens harass staunch Neanderthals from afar using a hit-and-run strategy.
Or perhaps better hunting and gathering techniques allowed sapiens feed larger tribes, creating a numerical advantage in battle.
Even after primitive homo sapiens exploded out of Africa 200,000 years ago, it took more than 150,000 years to conquer Neanderthals. In Israel and Greece, ancient homo sapiens landed just to fend off Neanderthal counterattacks, before a final modern assault homo sapiens, starting 125,000 years ago, scrapped them.
This was not a blitz, as one would expect if the Neanderthals were poor pacifists or warriors, but a lengthy war of attrition. In the end, we won. But this is not because they are less inclined to fight. In the end, we can become better at war than them.
Nicholas R. Longrich, Senior Lecturer in Evolutionary Biology and Paleontology, University of Bath.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.