Anthropology Magazine
Essay / Culture Lab

What If Neanderthals Had Outlived Homo Sapiens?

An anthropologist considers how different the world might be if Neanderthals—and hence, their ways of navigating relationships with the environment and one another—had survived the gauntlet of evolution.
A photograph features a wax figure of a seated person with a large nose and broad jaw wearing a gray collared button-up shirt under a suit jacket of a darker gray shade. Their body is angled left as they look into the distance.

If Neanderthals were alive today instead of Homo sapiens, the world would likely look quite different.

David Young/Picture Alliance/Getty Images

This article was originally published at The Conversation and has been republished with Creative Commons.

IN EVOLUTIONARY TERMS, the human population has rocketed in seconds. The news that it has now reached 8 billion seems inexplicable when you think about our history.

For 99 percent of the last million years of our existence, people rarely came across other humans. There were only around 10,000 Neanderthals living at any one time. Today there are around 800,000 people in the same space that was occupied by one Neanderthal. What’s more, since humans live in social groups, the next nearest Neanderthal group was probably well over 100 kilometers away. Finding a mate outside your own family was a challenge.

Neanderthals were more inclined to stay in their family groups and were warier of new people. If they had outcompeted our own species (Homo sapiens), the density of population would likely be far lower. It’s hard to imagine them building cities, for example, given that they were genetically disposed to being less friendly to those beyond their immediate family.

The reasons for our dramatic population growth may lie in the early days of H. sapiens more than 100,000 years ago. Genetic and anatomical differences between us and extinct species such as Neanderthals made us more similar to domesticated animal species. Large herds of cows, for example, can better tolerate the stress of living in a small space together than their wild ancestors who lived in small groups, spaced apart. These genetic differences changed our attitudes to people outside our own group. We became more tolerant.

A photograph features a line graph with the header “The size of the world population over the last 12,000 years” and smaller text below that reads, “Demographers expect rapid population growth to end by the end of the 21st century. The U.N. demographers expect a population of about 11 billion in 2100.” The graph has time periods along the x-axis (from the years 10,000 B.C. on the left to A.D. 2000 on the right) and population numbers in the billions along the y-axis. A red line is generally flat (under 1 billion) for most of the graph but spikes on the right side, going from “600 million in 1700” to “7.9 billion in 2022.”

The graph shows estimates calculated by the History Database of the Global Environment and the U.N.

As H. sapiens were more likely to interact with groups outside their family, they created a more diverse genetic pool, which reduced health problems. Neanderthals at El Sidrón in Spain showed 17 genetic deformities in only 13 people, for example. Such mutations were virtually nonexistent in later populations of our own species.

But larger populations also increase the spread of disease. Neanderthals might have typically lived shorter lives than modern humans, but their relative isolation will have protected them from the infectious diseases that sometimes wiped out whole populations of H. sapiens.

PUTTING MORE FOOD ON THE TABLE

Our species may also have had 10–20 percent faster rates of reproduction than earlier species of human. But having more babies only increases the population if there is enough food for them to eat.

Our genetic inclination for friendliness took shape around 200,000 years ago. From this time onward, there is archaeological evidence of the raw materials to make tools being moved around the landscape more widely.

From 100,000 years ago, we created networks along which new types of hunting weapons and jewelry such as shell beads could spread. Ideas were shared widely, and there were seasonal aggregations where H. sapiens got together for rituals and socializing. People had friends to depend on in different groups when they were short of food.

And we may have also needed more emotional contact and new types of relationship outside our human social worlds. In an alternative world where Neanderthals thrived, it may be less likely that humans would have nurtured relationships with animals through domestication.

DRAMATIC SHIFTS IN ENVIRONMENT

Things might also have been different had environments not generated so many sudden shortfalls, such as steep declines in plants and animals, on many occasions. If it wasn’t for these chance changes, Neanderthals may have survived.

An illustrated graphic depicts two pairs of skulls looking at each other, the top two resembling hominins and the bottom two looking much flatter and wider. The top two skulls are joined by blue lines intercepted by blue bubbles that align with different parts of the skull. White text reads, “Braincase shape and size,” “Browridge,” “Nasal bone projection,” “Tooth size,” and “Jaw projection prognathism.” The bottom two skulls are similarly joined by blue lines and interceding blue bubbles with white text that reads, “Braincase shape and size,” “Muzzle projection,” Tooth size,” and “Thickness of jaw.”

The illustrations highlight differences between modern humans (upper left) and archaic humans (here, a Neanderthal; upper right) and domesticated dogs (lower left) and wild wolves (lower right).

Sharing resources and ideas between groups allowed people to live more efficiently off the land by distributing more effective technologies and giving one another food at times of crisis. This was probably one of the main reasons why our species thrived when the climate changed while others died. H. sapiens were better adapted to weather variable and risky conditions. This is partly because our species could depend on networks in times of crisis.

During the height of the last ice age around 20,000 years ago, temperatures across Europe were 8–10 degrees Celsius lower than today, with those in Germany being more like northern Siberia is now. Most of Northern Europe was covered in ice for six-to-nine months of the year.

Social connections provided the means by which inventions could spread between groups to help us adapt. These included spear throwers to make hunting more efficient, fine needles to make fitted clothing and keep people warmer, food storage, and hunting with domesticated wolves. As a result, more people survived nature’s wheel of fortune.

H. sapiens were generally careful not to overconsume resources like deer or fish, and were likely more aware of their life cycles than much earlier species of human might have been. For example, people in what is today British Columbia, Canada, only took males when they fished for salmon.

In some cases, however, these life cycles were hard to see. During the last ice age, animals such as mammoths, which roamed over huge territories invisible to human groups, went extinct. There are more than 100 depictions of mammoths at Rouffignac in France dating to the time of their disappearance, which suggests people grieved this loss. But it is more likely mammoths would have survived if it wasn’t for the rise of H. sapiens because there would have been fewer Neanderthals to hunt them.

A photograph features rock art with etching of animals—a mammoth and several horned antelopes—painted across the expanse of a large, yellowed cave wall.

Rouffignac Cave in France features many ancient drawings of mammoths.

TOO CLEVER FOR OUR OWN GOOD

Our liking for one another’s company and the way spending time together fosters our creativity was the making of our species. But it came at a price.

The more technology humankind develops, the more our use of it harms the planet. Intensive farming is draining our soils of nutrients, overfishing is wrecking the seas, and the greenhouse gases we release when we produce the products we now rely on are driving extreme weather. Overexploitation wasn’t inevitable, but our species was the first to do it.

We can hope that visual evidence of the destruction in our natural world will change our attitudes in time. We have changed quickly when we needed to throughout our history. There is, after all, no planet B. But if Neanderthals had survived instead of us, we would never have needed one.

Penny Spikins is a professor in the archaeology of human origins at the University of York in the U.K. Over the last 10 years, she has particularly focused on cognitive and social evolution, publishing papers on the evolution of compassion (Time and Mind), dynamics of egalitarianism (Journal of World Prehistory, Open Quaternary), the origins of autism (Cambridge Archaeological Journal, Time and Mind, Open Archaeology), evolution of self-control and display in artifacts (World Archaeology), attachments to objects (Time and Mind), Neanderthal childhood (Oxford Archaeological Journal), and the origins of health care and medicine (World Archaeology, Quaternary Science Reviews). Her latest book Hidden Depths: The Origins of Human Connection builds on her previous volume How Compassion Made Us Human: The Evolutionary Origins of Tenderness, Trust, and Morality in arguing that a selection for pro-social emotional motivations has been the driving force behind human evolution.

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