We are fascinated by Neanderthals because of what they tell us about us – who we were and who we might have become. It is tempting to see them in idyllic terms and to live peacefully with nature and with one another, like Adam and Eve in the garden.
If so, the diseases of humanity – especially our territoriality, violence, wars – may not be innate, but modern inventions.
Biology and paleontology paint a darker picture. Far from being peaceful, Neanderthals were likely skillful fighters and dangerous warriors who only rivaled modern humans.
Predatory mammals are territorial, especially pack hunters. Like lions, wolves and homo sapiensNeanderthals were cooperative big game hunters. These predators, which sit on the food chain, have few predators of their own, so overpopulation leads to conflicts over hunting grounds. Neanderthals faced the same problem; If other species didn’t control their numbers, there would have been conflict.
This territoriality has deep roots in people. Territorial conflicts are also very intense with our closest relatives, the chimpanzees. Male chimpanzees routinely band together to attack and kill males from rival bands, behavior that is strikingly similar to human warfare.
This implies that 7 million years ago cooperative aggression developed in the common ancestor of the chimpanzees and us. In this case, the Neanderthals have inherited the same tendencies towards cooperative aggression.
Warfare is an integral part of being human. War is not a modern invention, but an ancient, fundamental part of our humanity. Historically, all peoples have been at war. Our oldest writings are full of war stories. Archeology reveals ancient fortresses and battles, as well as sites of prehistoric massacres that go back thousands of years.
War is human – and Neanderthals were very much like us. We are remarkably similar in our skull and skeletal anatomy and share 99.7 percent of our DNA.
Neanderthals were astonishingly like us. They made fires, buried their dead, fashionable jewelry made of shells and animal teeth, made works of art and stone shrines. If Neanderthals shared so many of our creative instincts, they probably shared many of our destructive instincts too.
Archaeological records confirm that Neanderthals’ life was far from peaceful.
Neanderthalensis were skilled big game hunters who killed deer, ibex, elk, bison, even rhinos and mammoths with spears. It is contrary to belief to believe that they would have hesitated to use these weapons if their families and their lands were threatened. Archeology suggests that such conflicts were common.
Prehistoric warfare leaves telltale signs. A blow to the head is an efficient way to kill – clubs are fast, powerful and precise weapons – so prehistoric homo sapiens often show trauma to the skull. Neanderthals too.
Another sign of warfare is the parry break, a break in the forearm caused by defending against blows. Neanderthals also show many broken arms. At least one Neanderthal man from Shanidar Cave in Iraq was impaled on the chest by a spear.
Traumas were particularly common among young Neanderthals, as were deaths. Some injuries may have been sustained while hunting, but the patterns are consistent with those predicted for a people involved in intertribal warfare – small but intense, ongoing conflicts, wars resulting from guerrilla raids and ambushes – Style be dominated, with battles rarer.
The Neanderthal resistance
War leaves more subtle marks in the form of territorial boundaries. The best evidence that Neanderthals not only fought but excelled in war is that they hit us and were not immediately overrun. Instead, Neanderthals resisted modern human expansion for around 100,000 years.
The offensive outside Africa. (Nicholas R. Longrich)
Otherwise, why should it take us so long to leave Africa? Not because the environment was hostile, but because Neanderthals were already flourishing in Europe and Asia.
It is extremely unlikely that modern humans met the Neanderthals and decided to just live and let live. Last but not least, population growth is inevitably forcing people to purchase more land in order to ensure sufficient territory for their children to hunt and forage.
But an aggressive military strategy is also a good evolutionary strategy.
Instead, we must have tested their fighters for thousands of years, and for thousands of years we have lost again and again. We were pretty even in terms of weapons, tactics and strategy.
Neanderthals likely had tactical and strategic advantages. They had occupied the Middle East for millennia and no doubt gained an in-depth knowledge of the terrain, the seasons, and the life of native plants and animals.
In combat, their massive, muscular physique must have made them devastating fighters in hand-to-hand combat. Their huge eyes likely gave Neanderthals superior vision in low light, and allowed them to maneuver in the dark after ambushes and dawn raids.
Eventually the stalemate broke and the tide changed. We do not know, why. It is possible that the invention of superior long-range weapons – bows, javelin throwers, throwing clubs – could easily be built homo sapiens Harass the stocky Neanderthals from a distance with hit-and-run tactics.
Or maybe better let hunting and collecting techniques Sapiens Feed larger tribes and create numerical superiority in battle.
Even after primitive ones homo sapiens Erupted from Africa 200,000 years ago, it took over 150,000 years to conquer the Neanderthals. Archaic in Israel and Greece homo sapiens only took ground to fall back on Neanderthals counter-offensives before a final offensive by modern homo sapiens, beginning 125,000 years ago, eliminated them.
This was not a blitzkrieg as one would expect if Neanderthals were either pacifists or inferior warriors, but a long war of attrition. In the end we won. But that wasn’t because they were less inclined to fight. In the end, we probably got better than them in the war.
Nicholas R. Longrich, Lecturer in Evolutionary Biology and Paleontology at the University of Bath.
This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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