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The First Genocide?

Or perhaps the analogy of Cain and Abel?

Remains Show Human Killed Neanderthal

Newly analyzed remains suggest that a modern human killed a Neanderthal man in what is now Iraq between 50,000 and 75,000 years ago. The finding is scant but tantalizing evidence for a theory that modern humans helped to kill off the Neanderthals. The probable weapon of choice: A thrown spear.

The evidence: A lethal wound on the remains of a Neanderthal skeleton. The victim: A 40- to 50-year-old male, now called Shanidar 3, with signs of arthritis and a sharp, deep slice in his left ninth rib. “What we’ve got is a rib injury, with any number of scenarios that could explain it,” said study researcher Steven Churchill, an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University in North Carolina. “We’re not suggesting there was a blitzkrieg, with modern humans marching across the land and executing the Neandertals [aka Neanderthals]. I want to say that loud and clear.” But he added, “We think the best explanation for this injury is a projectile weapon, and given who had those and who didn’t, that implies at least one act of inter-species aggression.”

What is interesting about the disappearance of the Neanderthal is that it is hard to explain simply in terms of competition for resources with early Homo Sapiens, given that the global human population was astronomically low. The Neanderthal too, would have had many physical advantages, given their more robust physiology, over their evolutionary cousins. Speculation has ranged from climate change, to immunological differences to the cognitive and cultural.

Could a key cultural difference have been a propensity of Homo Sapiens to make war? To seek out, rather than avoid conflict?

23 Responses to “The First Genocide?”

  1. tdaxp Says:

    Chimps engage in planned, stealth, terror attacks as well as open field maneuvers, so Neanderthals probably at least shared that.The cause of death in this case was an artificial two-piece ranged weapon.  It may be no chimp or even Neanderthal ever built one of those.We and our cousins are all able to dream about killing others, to plan for it, to organize for it, and to know when it is better to cripple and main. Only we seem to have the comtemplation to devise such ingenious weapons of war as killed this Neanderthal, though…

  2. Lexington Green Says:

    I have always assumed our ancestors killed off and maybe even ate the Neanderthals.  They are sufficiently human that would be competitors, yet sufficiently different that they would always be perceived as not-the-same as our ancestors.  When our ancestors came into an area, the Neanderthals would have already parked themselves in the desirable places, near sources of water, etc.   So our ancestors would treat them they way they would treat other bands of homo sapiens: Take what they had if possible, by direct attack or surprise attack or attritional raiding.  Plus, they were probably less smart and more poorly armed.  Weakness invites attack.  Wiping out the Neanderthals was pre-programmed.   I can imagine homo sapiens letting their young guys go out and ambush Neanderthals because it was relatively easy and a way to "work up" to harder challenges, like ambushing and killing other homo sapiens.  
    I get a laugh out of how these guys who dig up old bones have to be so mealy-mouthed and apologetic about our ancestors being the homicidal brutes that they were.  That’s the only reason we’re even here.  The nice guys, if there ever were any, didn’t have a chance.  An open and respectful inter-species dialogue was not on the agenda. 

  3. zen Says:

    I think it may be less smart in the sense of social complexity and perhaps language. Neanderthals give evidence of some abstract thought by having created art and burying their dead but not much evidence for the cultural complexity we see from Homo Sapiuens even at 12,000-15,000 BC. A Neanderthal would be, on average, much stronger given their bone structure and expanded rib cage, than all but the largest Homo Sapiens but that advantage means little if one side fights cooperatively with a rudimentary plan and better, more lethal, weapons and the other does not.

  4. Duncan Kinder Says:

    A 40- to 50-year-old male Neanderthal would be the equivalent of a 80 to 100 year old today.  Life expectencies were short in those days.  This is, of course, an isolated incident, which in and of itself proves nothing.  It could have been a freak event.  I, for one, have suspected that small numbers of Homo Erectus and Neanderthals actually survived until recently.   That would explain legends of goblins and trolls – for that is precisely how our ancestors would have perceived them.

  5. T. Greer Says:

    Why assume that humans were the ones with a cultural propensity for warfare? All we know is that an old Neanderthal was killed by a human. Is the wreckage of the Sh?kaku evidence that American culture is more war-prone than the Japanese?

  6. T. Greer Says:

    Why assume that humans were the ones with a cultural propensity for warfare? All we know is that an old Neanderthal was killed by a human. Is the wreckage of the Sh?kaku evidence that American culture is more war-prone than the Japanese?

  7. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    Why assume that humans were the ones with a cultural propensity for warfare?

    So the propensity arose in the last few centuries?  Hmmm.  I would guess the answer to that would answer your question too.

    Still, could have been that both had the propensity.

  8. democratic core Says:

    Can’t really jump to too many conclusions about this.  If there had been a "neanderthal genocide", there should be a lot more evidence for it than this.  If anything, the rarity of this discovery almost seems like "the exception that proves the rule" given the lack of fossilized evidence of the large-scale killing of neanderthals by homo sapiens.  Moreover, this neanderthal died (or was killed) 50-75,000 years ago, while neanderthals continued to exist until roughly 25-30,000 years ago, which would indicate that this killing was not part of any systematic large-scale "genocide" of the neanderthals.
    Generally, the evidence seems to indicate that the two species did not interact with each other very much, which would tend to rebut the genocide theory.  DNA evidence indicates almost no interbreeding between neanderthals and homo sapiens – it does not seem to be the case that victorious homo sapiens warriors raped the neanderthal women.  On the other hand, we don’t really know much about why neanderthals became extinct, so it is certainly possible that large numbers were killed off by homo sapiens, or at least, neanderthals found themselves hemmed in by homo sapiens into occupying relatively small land areas where their populations dwindled and extinction resulted from famine and/or disease.  While there have been claims that neanderthals were as intelligent as homo sapiens and had a developed "musical" form of language, studies also indicate that their average cranial capacity was smaller than that of homo sapiens and the configuration of their jaws suggests that their vocalizing abilities were more limited.
    I’ll avoid the temptation to get into another "human nature" debate – I am thinking about doing a blog post clarifying my thoughts on that subject.  I note that you state that a propensity for warfare might have reflected a "cultural" difference between homo sapiens and neanderthals (emphasis added).  I would agree with that.  To the extent that there were interactions between neanderthals and homo sapiens, those interactions were almost certainly extremely violent, as the sort of hunter/gatherer human society that existed at the time was a very violent one.  My hunch is that it wasn’t so much any innate difference in the propensity for warfare between neanderthals and homo sapiens, as the fact that homo sapiens were more intelligent, had a more socially advanced form of hunter/gatherer society in which conflict was used more aggressively, and not just defensively, in order to obtain economic advantages, and therefore homo sapiens  were better than neanderthals at eliminating competitors.
    To the extent homo sapiens did kill neanderthals, they likely also ate them.  Fossils indicate that both neanderthals and homo sapiens engaged in cannibalism.

  9. Lexington Green Says:

    Even if the Neanderthalers had the cultural propensity, fat lot of good it did them!
    GRANDPA had the spears, and brains and teamwork, baby!  
    From our ancestor’s flint-tipped spears … all the way to the ox-drawn plow, the printing press, the steam engine, the Internet and nanotech and who knows what-all next.  A path strewn with the skulls of the losers, cut down by our ancestors, the winners, which is the only reason we are here. 
    Too bad, I suppose, that there was no nice way to do it. 

  10. zen Says:

    Hey everyone,
    "This is, of course, an isolated incident, which in and of itself proves nothing.  It could have been a freak event"
    What I think it does Duncan, is falsify the old prevailing assumption that the two groups of hominds did not interact – there’s also been a few fossil finds in recent years indicating some interbreeding – and I think as DC and Lex suggest, violence might have been the norm when prehistoric hunter-gthers crossed paths.  I am sympathetic to your view that other hominids might have continued to exist on the periphery of human existence until maybe the dawn of the agricultural revolution, long enough to be mythologized by almost every significant human culture ( not sure where "giants" fit in – Gigantopithecus perhaps?)

  11. Jeff Says:

    Sounds like a scene out of William Golding’s The Inheritors.  And Golding seemed to think that culture, mindset, and readiness to kill were the determinants in neanderthal vs. early human conflicts.  Of course, his was hardly a scientific investigation/theory, but it’s an interesting take on the subject all the same.  Well worth the read if you’re interested.

  12. democratic core Says:

    Isaac Asimov’s story "The Ugly Little Boy" gives you the sympathetic portrayal of neanderthals.  Also interesting to speculate what it would have been like if neanderthals had survived into modern times.  There was a Star Trek-Enterprise episode about a planet with two classes of humanoids.

  13. Lexington Green Says:

    I recall that Asimov story.  Very sad.  In more recent times of course we have many similar and nonfictional sad tales of doomed communities, in the Western hemisphere, Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania — people who were inadequately equipped in terms of organization, weapons, wealth, to hold off people who were determined to take what they had and drive them to their deaths in the process.   I don’t think there were any realistic alternatives.  But the butcher’s bill, standing alone, is stomach-turning. 

  14. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    Our history is littered w/ graveyards.

  15. Larry Dunbar Says:

    "Microcephalin was different, though. Humans who carried the Neanderthal version had more children than those who didn’t, and the gene spread steadily."

    Any thoughts on the Neanderthal giving humans a little added "something" in the gene pool. (http://www.forbes.com/2007/02/25/genghis-khan-descendants-lead_achieve07_cz_cz_0301khan.html).

    I would not want to cast aspersions on any ones mother, but…they were big barrel-chested men after all.

  16. tdaxp Says:

    I forget who, but someone  (Joseph Graves?) once quipped "We do not have any racial questions, at least in the biological sense. If Colombus had discovered the New World and found two continents full of Neanderthals, then we would have had a racial question!"

    Indeed. It would have been inconvenient if we not killed our cousins.

  17. ninjas Says:

    Lex, RE: your comment about archaeologists and others that dig up the past being apologetic. I’m curious if you read much archaeology? In my experience, Archaeologists tend to be some of the most flint-eyed observers of humanity around (well everyone within Archaeology, bar the critical-theory influenced wackos). Much more so than there other humanities and social scientist friends. 

  18. Lexington Green Says:

    Ninjas:  Actually, I agree with that.  AI have a pretty good friend who is a neighbor who is an archeologist, oddly enough.  He is politically very left, like most academics, but he is pretty realistic about what his field has discovered, as you say.  But there have been several news stories where people seem to be shying away from the most obvious conclusions, like this one.  The people who get appointed to make the public statements are probably the ones who are politically astute to be carefully politically correct about what they say to the news media.

  19. gohan Says:

    I tend to agree with lex. If speculations about the evidence of a Neanderthal remains is due to a massive inter-species genocide, then why are there only limited evidences of killed off Neanderthals?
    Yet, in contrary to what I said, I’m a student who’s about to report on the genocide between these two species and with vast missing links and evidences, i may not be able to support my stand well enough. i would just want to ask for some more evidences with regard to this.

  20. Larry Dunbar Says:

    "…then why are there only limited evidences of killed off Neanderthals?"

    The winners ate them and "scattered" their remains?

  21. Hell Knight Says:

    Isnt the majority of argument now, rather mute?
    If in fact the recent studies displaying that between 1 and 4% of Modern Huamns are carrying Nenderthal genetics is reviewed and proves accurate, we can guggest that the Neanderthal never went extinct at all and that, at least in some of us, Neanderthals live on as a hybrid species.

  22. zen Says:

    Hi Hell Knight,
    I’m not sure the two explanations are exclusive. Killing off all of the enemy men and enslaving their women was a feature of warfare that ranged from pre-history into the Middle ages, at least. Given the time scale, ou also would not need more than a few instances of cross-breeding to pass on their lineage to such a large group of descendants.. All of Eurasian men, for example, are descended from one guy in East Africa about 70,000-80,000 BC

  23. N.F.Hoffmann Says:

    Ritual warfare and the clash between two entirely different yet alarmingly similar beings combined with the deeply influential yet rudimentary animist based first religions most likely sparked the provocation that led to the spearing that struck down the Neanderthal Elder .
    Science assumes such incredible amounts of time occured with us and other humanoids where we just advanced at a snails pace while in the last century we progressed eons it took centuries for us to break out of the trees ?
    I would dare say that we shall discover more than stone tools some day and find stone idols and weapons of intelligent design perhaps complexes that both societies graduated too after time ?
    And of course the speculative theory that provocation between the Elder Neanderthal and his foe was heavily influenced by early man rascist bent oratories about the evils of the other cave dwelling strangers on the next hill who were maybe slowly decimated in attacks as these ,Just like what we did to the Giant Baboons as a rite of manhood causing their extinction ?

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