On Neanderthals and War

The Atlantic recently published an article discussing new findings from the excavation-rich Denisova cave in Siberia, namely evidence of a daughter born from a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father. The Denisovans were a subspecies of modern humans estimated to have lived throughout eastern Russia and central Asia whose DNA is present in high volumes among the people of greater Melanesia. The article ties in with similar findings that revealed evidence of Neanderthal DNA in human populations, as well as the likelihood that Homo sapiens (that's us) produced children with Neanderthals.

It’s an interesting piece, though this anodyne explanation caught my eye:

“This genome shows that hybrids were nowhere near as rare as people have been assuming. They must have been really common... Ancient DNA shows that humans not only mated with Neanderthals but also Denisovans, and Denisovans and Neanderthals with each other. As these groups roamed Eurasia hundreds of years ago, they met and had children—over and over again, it seems.”

Human men and Neanderthal woman likely did not meet-cute, court each other, and settle down to have big, happy mixed-hominid families. The process The Atlantic hints at entailed a far darker and more brutal history.

The key to this is the gender of both parents. The findings note that a Denisovan man took a Neanderthal wife - but probably "took" in the most literal sense. And I doubt she was much his actual wife. More than anything else, this article unintentionally nods at the earliest mass conflict in human history - an era of violence and subjugation by Homo sapiens and similar populations towards their Neanderthal contemporaries.

Neanderthals went extinct in continental Europe shortly after modern humans migrated to the region around 40,000 years ago. While the topic is contentious and blurred by the shadows of history, humans and Neanderthals may have coexisted for as little as 500 years before Neanderthals disappeared entirely. Articles that discuss Neanderthal DNA in human populations often do so under a wistful tone, highlighting “intermarriage” as evidence these interactions were not universally hostile. I’m afraid that if anything, trace amounts of mitochondrial DNA only point more strongly to a period of conquest against the Neanderthals of Eurasia that followed our arrival.

Humans and Neanderthals would have been in strict competition for hunting and foraging grounds the moment we came into contact. It’s easy to forget in this current industrialized era, but the paucity of foodstuffs prior to the advent of settled agriculture meant that human populations were in endless rivalry over limited resources. Acquiring nutrition, whether it was gathered from the brush or hunted in packs, was a singular priority for the human animal that occupied the near-entirety of our waking lives. It also would have driven humans and Neanderthals into vicious, irreconcilable conflict the moment we arrived in their territory - a state of ongoing expansion and subsequent war whose brutality was likely inflamed by a sense of antagonism over the other population not even being a member of our species, let alone our tribe. Any Neanderthals who weren’t killed would have still been driven from hunting and foraging grounds in the aftermath - an ancient precursor to ethnic cleansing that likely produced an even greater mass of deaths from starvation.

The more alien your assumed opponent, the easier it is to degrade them among your own and inflict out-group aggression. Human beings have long maintained codes regulating treatment of those within their given culture, typically assuming a set of proscriptions designed to avert violence that would be corrosive to internal unity. Our ability to survive via protecting our designated in-group was a brilliant social-evolutionary adaptation that allowed hominids to thrive and permeate the globe. Tribal preservation was a rather literal matter of life and death. However, when facing a competing population, this group cohesion instinct oftentimes took an inverse, bloodthirsty form.

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian famously opens with a description of pre-human remains that show indication of having been scalped, and there is evidence ancient humans ritualized war and took physical trophies of their enemies. Archeologists recently discovered a 10,000 year-old mass grave in Kenya filled with 27 human skeletons that displayed injuries consistent with arrow wounds and blunt trauma. In a particularly bleak twist, there were signs the victims had been bound prior to execution. A 7,000 year-old finding from Talheim, Germany exhumed a group of early humans who were not only bludgeoned to death, but attacked while attempting to flee what was likely a larger and more well-armed group.  We can go back even farther than this - chimpanzees have displayed yearslong periods of organized violence against competing bands that entailed invading their territory, killing out-group chimps, and even forcefully “integrating” females into the victorious tribe.

To return to Neanderthal DNA evidence - mitochondrial DNA passes exclusively down the female line while Y-chromosome DNA is inherited through male lineage. After examining human DNA sequences, geneticists from Stanford University admitted that “We’ve never observed the Neanderthal Y-chromosome DNA in any human sample ever tested.”  The researchers lacked a concrete rationale for the absence of Neanderthal Y-chromosome DNA despite the presence of the specie's mitochondrial DNA in human populations. One of their listed hypotheses was that Neanderthal Y-chromosome DNA would have been incompatible with human genes (while mitochondrial DNA was somehow integrable within our genetic structure).

I’ll offer my own explanation for this void of male Neanderthal ancestry - early humans killed Neanderthal men while capturing their women during an epoch of atavistic warfare. Neanderthals seem to have grouped in smaller and more isolated populations, leaving them vulnerable to raids by hostile outsiders. That old trope about "sparing women and children" traces its origin to these ancient episodes of organized violence. Combat-aged men (of which the definition was typically quite generous) have sometimes been enslaved, but more often than not were massacred wholesale. Sparing them was far too dangerous, as it left the possibility of subsequent reprisal.

Which is not to say their female counterparts fared much better. As has long been the cruel fate of women amidst war, sexual violence at the hands of victors was endemic. Women were often reduced to little more than sexual chattel, doled out to men of the triumphant band as concubines. In reverence of this tradition, The Bible itself outlines how the faithful should treat sex slaves acquired through conquest, including the necessity of tallying young virgins among the rightly distributed spoils. More recently, ISIS made practice of this in their commitment to reviving war’s most primordial and sadistic aspects as they sexually enslaved Yazidi girls while massacring their adult men and older women. As a grim aside - it’s possible that Neanderthal women, with their exotic red hair, were highly prized as sexual plunder.

The idea that war is typically an even affair, staged along setpiece battles à la Gettysburg, is a fundamentally ahistorical conceit. Throughout the human timeline, war has often resembled a campaign of expulsion, land theft, or deliberate extermination carried out by a more powerful faction against a less eminent population. Amidst these predations, women were frequently the most valued bounty. Out-group women could be done with as pleased, their treatment ungoverned by the strict mores that codified relations with daughters of your own tribe. I have little doubt our predecessors integrated this within proto-warfare against their Neanderthal contemporaries (and even other humans). There’s a lot to be extrapolated about the toll this took on gender relations and the status of women across human societies, but that’s another essay unto itself.

This is our heritage. Ours would be a saner, less sexist, more cooperative world had we evolved from bonobos, but that is unfortunately not our ancestry. Instead, we must contend with our legacy as advanced chimps who are only a bit more clever and elaborate in our violence.

Adam Patterson can be reached by email at "napalmintheAM@gmail.com" or on Twitter @AdamPattersonDC.