The Smithsonian has an interesting article up on what we currently know about Neanderthals. The article details some of the internecine battles that always seems to be a part of the paleoanthropology field, in this case focusing on the capabilities of Neanderthals, whether they had art, religion, and other qualities of modern humans.
Our view of Neanderthals has undergone a radical transformation from when they were first discovered in the 19th century. Then they were thought of a ape-men, large lumbering brutes who probably didn’t have language, clothing, or brains to speak of. As recently as a few decades ago, in the movie Quest for Fire (one of my favorite movies, despite its flaws), Neanderthals were portrayed as mental inferiors who often acted like monkeys.
But in science, evidence always has the final word:
A new body of research has emerged that’s transformed our image of Neanderthals. Through advances in archaeology, dating, genetics, biological anthropology and many related disciplines we now know that Neanderthals not only had bigger brains than sapiens, but also walked upright and had a greater lung capacity. These ice age Eurasians were skilled toolmakers and big-game hunters who lived in large social groups, built shelters, traded jewelry, wore clothing, ate plants and cooked them, and made sticky pitch to secure their spear points by heating birch bark. Evidence is mounting that Neanderthals had a complex language and even, given the care with which they buried their dead, some form of spirituality. And as the cave art in Spain demonstrates, these early settlers had the chutzpah to enter an unwelcoming underground environment, using fire to light the way.
It seems clear now that if we were to encounter Neanderthals today, they might look a bit strange to us, but we would quickly come to regard them as people. Indeed, that appears to be what our ancestors did.
The real game-changer came in 2013, when, after a decades-long effort to decode ancient DNA, the Max Planck Institute published the entire Neanderthal genome. It turns out that if you’re of European or Asian descent, up to 4 percent of your DNA was inherited directly from Neanderthals.
4% may not seem like much, but my understanding is that it represents a lot of interbreeding between Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalis. These weren’t one off encounters, the results of deviants from one or both species. It indicates pretty wide integration.
Decades ago, there were two prevailing theories about how modern humans evolved. One held that we had gradually evolved from earlier Homo species, primarily Homo erectus, throughout the world, with ongoing genetic exchanges. In this model, called Multiregional Evolution, Europeans evolved mostly separately from eastern Asians who evolved mostly separately from Africans, etc.
The other view, called the Replacement model, or Recent African Origin theory, held that modern humans had evolved in Africa, and then sometime in the last 50,000-100,000 years had migrated out and spread throughout the world, displacing any other Homo species they encountered.
The debate between these two views raged on for decades, with the evidence gradually growing in favor of the Replacement model, before genetic research finally weighed in on it and sealed the deal. It turns out that modern humans evolved in Africa within the last 200,000-300,000 years. All of us today are descended from these Africans. A branch of humanity migrated out of Africa sometime between 60,000 and 80,000 years ago, spreading throughout the world. All non-Africans are descended from this branch.
But while the Replacement model was mostly right, it wasn’t entirely right. As mentioned above, further research showed that non-Africans have DNA from other branches of humanity. European ancestors interbred with Neanderthals, and Asian ancestors probably interbred with another branch of humanity called Denisovans.
One of the theories about why these other branches of humanity died out, prevalent until just a few years ago, was that Homo sapiens probably wiped them out. I have to admit that this dark genocidal theory seemed plausible to me at the time. Neanderthals in particular had been around for hundreds of thousands of years, only disappearing when modern humans came around.
But it now strikes me as more plausible that Neanderthals weren’t wiped out. They were assimilated. This is referred to as the Assimilation Model in the article. The population of Neanderthals was never more than a few thousand individuals, while the incoming Homo sapiens population was reportedly in the tens of thousands. It seems likely that what happened was some degree of interbreeding, merging, and assimilation.
I’m sure that doesn’t mean it was all sweetness and light. Homo sapiens were an invading force. I’m sure there was conflict, and some of it was probably brutal. There’s too much continuity in violent behavior from other primates to humans to think it wouldn’t have happened. But we’re also a pragmatic species, one whose members will make alliances when it’s the best option. It seems clear that happened in at least some portion of the encounters.
All of which indicates that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals had enough in common to recognize each other’s humanity. Which also means that their common ancestor, Homo heidelbergensis, who lived from 700,000 to 300,000 years ago, likely had many of the qualities we’d recognize in people. There’s no evidence they had what’s now called behavioral modernity, including symbolic thought, but they must have had a lot of what makes us…us, including perhaps an early form of language, or proto-language.
But this is a field where new evidence is constantly being uncovered and paradigms shifted, so we should probably expect more surprises in the years to come.