Neanderthals generally get a bad rap.
If history is written by the winners, they are the world’s very first losers. After all, Neanderthals came out on the wrong end of the great evolutionary battle with our Homo Sapiens ancestors. Ever since, they have been portrayed as big, stupid, artless, lumbering brutes. Our smarter forebears wiped out the last trace of the creatures from Europe about 28,000 years ago in what might well have been history’s first genocide.
But this history is now being rewritten. Neanderthals, it turns out, were not stupid or artless. And they didn’t likely die out in an apocalyptic firefight with our ancestors. When the first Neanderthal genome was sequenced in 2010, it revealed an entirely different story.
And that story has some interesting implications for foreign policy as well.
Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens are cousins, having branched off from a common ancestor around 350,000 to 400,000 years ago. Neanderthals never seemed to have lived in Africa, for no sign of them has ever been found there. But they ranged widely across Eurasia and parts of the modern-day Middle East. And that’s where they encountered our ancestors spreading out from their African birthplace.
Readers of Jean Auel’s 1980 bestselling novel The Clan of the Cave Bear are well aware of the thesis that Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon humans (an early modern version of Homo Sapiens) overlapped. The two lived side-by-side for as many as 17,000 years in Europe.
From the existing fossil record, the first modern humans made it to Europe as early as 45,000 years ago, while the last Neanderthals disappeared from Gibraltar about 28,000 years ago. But Europe was not exactly crisscrossed with high-speed trains in those days, so those Gibraltar holdouts probably never encountered any modern humans. It’s not clear whether the paths of the two species — and the evidence is accumulating that they were two separate species — ever crossed in Europe.
In the warmer regions of the Middle East, however, the two cousins may have cohabitated for as long as 60,000 years. That’s an astonishingly long time. Recorded history as we understand it has only lasted about 5,500 years. During that time, empires have risen and fallen, wars have raged, and entire peoples have disappeared. Only the Aboriginal culture in Australia has maintained any kind of cultural continuity over such vast stretches of time.
In 2010, when researchers sequenced the Neanderthal genome, they discovered some surprising results. Neanderthal DNA is in our genetic makeup – on average about 1-2 percent, with as much as 4 percent in some.
There are two theories about how this happened. The less interesting one is that we share DNA because of a shared ancestor. But that doesn’t explain why people in Africa today, where no evidence of Neanderthals has been found, lack any genetic link to them. According to the Neanderthal Genome Project, meanwhile, genetic mixing took place about 60,000 years ago in the Middle East.
Which brings us to theory two: sex. It is more than likely that some serious prehistoric hooking up went on not only between our precursors and Neanderthals, but also with other Neanderthal-like cousins in Africa and Asia.
The new DNA evidence coincides with other discoveries that Neanderthals were not all that different from us. They created art. They had the capacity for speech. They created tools. They hunted. They cooked. Interbreeding between two similar cousin species is, literally, not inconceivable. Especially if they were in close proximity to one another for much longer than all of recorded history.
War and Peace, Neanderthal-style
All of this is interesting from the point of view of evolution. But it also has some interesting implications for foreign policy in three realms: war and peace, inter-social relations, and climate change.
The old narrative of two irreconcilable species fighting until one disappears from the fossil record has been challenged by a new narrative of amor vincit omnia: love conquers all.
Of course, to project our notions of love 50,000 years into the past is absurd. There could have been any number of circumstances in which Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens mated, not all of them so palatable by today’s standards. But given the percentage of shared DNA and the sheer amount of time that these cousins lived in the same place, the interbreeding was not likely to be accidental or only occasional. And this genetic sharing served the larger purpose of helping us — the latecomer to Eurasia — to adapt to the new environment. Whether Neanderthals ever offered a helping hand or not to the new arrivals, they certainly ended up offering a helping gene or two.
In our current narratives about two or more peoples struggling over common land — in Palestine, Ukraine, Bosnia — we focus on the economic motives, the cultural clashes, and the geopolitical considerations. Occasionally, a journalist looking for a feature story or a filmmaker eager to zero in on the “human element” will seize on the story of love across boundaries. In Bosnia, it was the story of the “Romeo and Juliet” couple — she Muslim and he Serbian — who tried to flee Sarajevo only to be shot by snipers as they attempted to cross the Vrbanja bridge. In the short film West Bank Story, an Israeli soldier falls in love with a Palestinian cashier in the midst of a conflict between the two families’ falafel stands.
These are the small anecdotes that storytellers use to illustrate the larger conflict. But perhaps these are really the most important stories. The war, the territory gained or lost, the political points scored: all of these pale in comparison to what matters in the long run. The “selfishness” of our genes — the evolutionary imperative to survive — impels us to acts of love and charity, as Richard Dawkins argued nearly 40 years ago.
It’s commonplace for those locked in social conflict to dehumanize the perceived adversary, to claim that that the Islamist or the Christian infidel is barbaric and not worthy of existence, that Ukrainians are “Europeans like us” while Russians are beyond the pale, that Koreans in the north are brainwashed automata while those in the South are mindful consumers.
But it’s useful to be reminded that even when modern humans encountered a genuine “other” in the form of Neanderthals and other cousins, we didn’t dehumanize them. We got as close as humanly possible.
Listening to Our Inner Neanderthal
It’s still not entirely clear why Neanderthals died out. They might have been simply absorbed through interbreeding. They might not have had sufficient numbers to compete for scarce resources. Or perhaps it had something to do with climate.
The extinction of the last Neanderthals coincided with Last Glacial Maximum, the peak of the last Ice Age. Europe was covered in ice and permafrost. It was not a particularly hospitable environment. According to the record of their tools, Neanderthals had to travel much further afield to find food as the climate cooled.
Or, if most Neanderthals died out even earlier, it could have been a single catastrophic event — the massive eruption of a volcano in Italy 39,000 years ago — that lowered the temperature and produced a die-off in most of Europe.
In either case, the Neanderthals couldn’t adapt quickly enough to survive. Of course, they couldn’t do anything to change the climate. The climate was changing of its own accord. And Neanderthals did whatever they could to adapt to the changing circumstances.
We big-brained modern humans, on the other hand, are largely responsible for our own current climate change. And we are responding with no particular urgency. At best, we’re only doing what the Neanderthals did, moving away from places that climate change has made inhospitable.
The Neanderthals had an option we don’t have. They could pass on their genetic inheritance by breeding with Homo Sapiens. But we are all there is at the moment. Yet with all our tool-making ingenuity, our social skills, and our ability to reflect on all the lessons of history and pre-history, we are ending up doing no better than the caveman.
John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus.