The wrong side won.
By Nicholas Longrich, The Conservation
Around 600,000 years ago, humanity split in two. One group stayed in Africa, evolving into us. The other struck out overland, into Asia, then Europe, becoming Homo neanderthalensis – the Neanderthals. They weren’t our ancestors, but a sister species, evolving in parallel.
Neanderthals fascinate us because of what they tell us about ourselves – who we were, and who we might have become. It’s tempting to see them in idyllic terms, living peacefully with nature and each other, like Adam and Eve in the Garden.
If so, maybe humanity’s ills – especially our territoriality, violence, wars – aren’t innate, but modern inventions.
Biology and palaeontology paint a darker picture. Far from peaceful, Neanderthals were likely skilled fighters and dangerous warriors, rivaled only by modern humans.
Predatory land mammals are territorial, especially pack-hunters. Like lions, wolves and Homo sapiens, Neanderthals were cooperative big-game hunters. These predators, sitting atop the food chain, have few predators of their own, so overpopulation drives conflict over hunting grounds. Neanderthals faced the same problem; if other species didn’t control their numbers, conflict would have.
This territoriality has deep roots in humans. Territorial conflicts are also intense in our closest relatives, chimpanzees. Male chimps routinely gang up to attack and kill males from rival bands, a behaviour strikingly like human warfare.
This implies that cooperative aggression evolved in the common ancestor of chimps and ourselves, 7 million years ago. If so, Neanderthals will have inherited these same tendencies towards cooperative aggression.