The "brutal wipe-out" of Neanderthals: a myth?

Our usual narrative of Neanderthal extinction, in which modern humans wiped them all out at once, has been challenged by the discovery of a single tooth.

H. Jordan
2nd March 2022
Neanderthals and modern humans perhaps didn't have a 'head to head' in the way scholars previously thought. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Recent discoveries made in Grotte Mandrin, southern France, add yet another twist to the primordial drama of archaic hominins and their mutual successions. The discovery of the tooth of an anatomically modern human child, alongside tools significantly more sophisticated than those of contemporaneous Neanderthal populations, offer a substantial challenge to the idea that anatomically modern humans (Homo Sapiens) wiped out Neanderthal populations (Homo Neanderthalensis) shortly upon arrival from Africa.

Neanderthals are held to have emerged in Europe roughly 400,000 years ago (ka), and to have predominated until the arrival of Homo Sapiens (our species itself emerging Africa around 300 ka) in Europe between 45-40 ka, the rapid depletion of the Neanderthal population occurring shortly afterwards. The discovery of a modern human child’s tooth, dating from between 56,800 and 51,700 ka, by a team led by Prof. Ludovic Slimak of the University of Toulouse, suggests to the contrary that the arrival of modern humans occurred roughly 12,000 years before previously understood. Further, fossil evidence indicates that after this initial human incursion there occurred a subsequent Neanderthal reoccupation, followed by a second modern human phase from between 44.1 - 41.5 ka onwards.  

This evidence discloses a far richer texture to the nascence of modern humanity

In the research published in the journal Science Advances said evidence is held to demonstrate that the replacement of indigenous Neanderthal populations by Homo Sapiens was “not a straightforward single event but a complex historical process during which both populations replaced each other rapidly or even abruptly, at least twice, in the same territory”. This, alongside genetic evidence of multiple episodes of interbreeding between Neanderthal and Homo Sapien populations occurring in Asia (and possibly Europe) discloses a far richer texture to the nascence of modern humanity than previously understood. 

Such is framed by many outlets as disproving the notion of a ‘brutal wipe out’ of Neanderthal populations by Homo Sapiens, though this by no means suggests that the co-existence of modern humans and Neanderthals in Europe was peaceful— or further that cases of interbreeding occurred by means of peaceful exchanges of partners. 

It remains to the providence of further evidence to outline the primordial situation of our species, whatever character it may have held.

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AUTHOR: H. Jordan
Second Year Philosophy student with an interest in aesthetics, politics, ethics and their intersections.

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