The vanished Neanderthals:
I used to know men who looked like the old fashioned reconstructions of Neanderthal faces, although I have not seen such a one for many years.  Pretty much people like Neanderthals now.  It was not always the case.  When the first skeleton was discovered (a few skulls had been discovered earlier) it was variously thought to be a mentally deficient person, a primitive form of human or a Cossack. 

The Neanderthal skeleton was discovered in 1856 in Germany in a valley of that name.

Image from Google Earth. 

The valley was named after a man whose last name was Neander, which means “new man.”  How very strange.  The Neanderthal man stood about 5 feet five inches tall, much more robust than us moderns and, get this, with a bigger brain case.  At first he was thought to be a bear.  I suspect the Cossack notion arose because the Germans were having problems with Cossacks at the time, which means in a kind of way it was a complement. 

So our nearest known kin appears to have had a bigger brain than our own.  Yet the kind died out.  From time to time people wonder why.  Armed with the knowledge that excess population size will, for genetic reasons, cause a fertility collapse, we can venture a guess.

There are two lines of evidence that seem to be robust.  The first is that Neanderthals spread widely and thrived until they came into contact with modern humans, at which point they vanished every time.  The other is that there was a difference in diet.  Neanderthals ate almost exclusively large game, while early modern humans left evidence that they ate a diet which was quite varied.  That means they could survive in higher densities in a given environment. 

These modern humans must have lived in small bands that respected their differences, since that is the way the least developed societies are known to have lived as long as people have been watching them.  But Neanderthals had no need of such a habit.  The fact that they ate only large game forced them to live at low population densities, so the gene pool size was limited automatically.  There was no need for Neanderthals to be hostile toward each other.  There was no reason to respect differences. 

When the two forms of people met, it does not seem likely that the moderns simply fought and killed the Neanderthals.  One of the early reactions was, “You really don’t want to tangle with this guy.”  And on latter reflection, it seems pretty likely that whatever tactic could take down a mammoth could probably serve to defend you against humans.  Moderns may have developed ranged weapons for hunting already, but it was not until the battle of Gettysburg that the missile was the military match of shock. 

It is sad but less terrible to think that the thing about modern humans that destroyed our kin may have been cooperation.  We may have interbred with them, which would have been disastrous for them, since the sudden increase in the genetic diversity would have depressed fertility in a very few generations.  It would have been equally disastrous to the modern humans, of course, but having already established a society consisting of relatively isolated bands, moderns could have tolerated the occasional loss of a band here or a band there.  At one point it was thought that evidence suggested there was indeed interbreeding but that no Neanderthal genetic material had survived.  I do not know whether that notion has been changed, but it certainly would have been consistent with everything else we know. 

Alternatively, or perhaps at the same time, we moderns may have taught them enough about how to find other things to eat so that the Neanderthal population size spiked before collapsing, much as our own seems to be doing.  Perhaps evidence will one day emerge that will let us know more about what happened. 

At all events, we have enough to feel badly about already without bearing the responsibility for violence against our cousins.  We killed them off one way or another, but quite likely we killed them with kindness.  And we did it in all innocence.  We haven’t noticed yet that we are doing it to ourselves. 

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