Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The First Genocide

Whatever happened to all the Neanderthals? The question is asked again and again by those who study or even have just a passing interest in those who simultaneously preceded and took a different path than the ancestors of modern humans. The ideas that we desecnded from them directly or interbreeded with them are slowly being eroded by newer evidence, both archealogical and genetic, and slowly a grim truth is being accepted as to why their disappearance coincides with a territorial expansion of our ancestors that enveloped land once theirs. I wrote earlier about the recent book, "Before the Dawn" by Nicholas Wade, but some thoughts have been lingering with me regarding a particularly unnerving mid-portion of that book which dealt with some of man's darker behaviors, as well as some thoughts on the final fate of the Neanderthals.

The Neanderthals

The Neanderthals were very much like us, but also very different. Based on skeletonal remains that have been found, they were generally between five and five and a half feet tall, slightly shorter than average by today's standards, but a bit taller than the anatomically modern humans (or cro-magnon) living at the time. It is believed they had low, sloping foreheads, no chins -same as chimps today- and a good deal more muscle, weight, and strength than even we do today, despite their stature being lower than our own is now. Dressing an ancient, anatomically modern human in the clothing we have today would allow them to blend into a crowd, but doing so for a Neanderthal wouldn't keep them from drawing stares, or so the saying goes.

The Neanderthals used stone tools about the same as those of our ancestors up until about 50,000 years ago. These included axes, cleavers, and other cutting implements made of flaked stone, and probably a good deal other tools made of more perishable materials like wood, and animal hides which haven't survived into modern times. On the topic of perishability, they also almost certainly built shelters, but because of this quality, little remains and mostly they have been associated as being "cavemen" due to this type of place being the most common residence their settements have been found intact.

They were able to control fire, a big technological advantage of the ancient world unique only man and his close cousins. Also, some primitive works of art have been found in their dwellings, though it is open to debate as to whether they themselves were the creators of it or not. Like many tribes living in foraging or limited farming societies today, it is possible that much of what they made would not survive the ravages of time leaving us with limited information in this regard, to say nothing of the immaterial artifacts; their culture, language, and knowledge of the plants and animals on the land they inhabited. All of this we lack true evidence of and can only infer. In a similar way, stone-age tribes living today would not leave much behind to be analyzed.

In terms of other qualities that we generally associate with humans, they appear to have lived in small groups, stored up food as a safeguard against lean times (though not to the extent of the cro-magnons living at the time), buried their dead, and cared for their injured. The burials are inferred from what seem to be grave sites dug in the earth, in some cases with flowers or even jewelry that appear to have been placed there purposely. Their caring for their injured comes from skeletons showing very bad injuries that would've crippled or likely meant death for their victim had they been alone, but have instead healed over, implying that other, healthy members took care of them while incapacitated.

One of the most important unknowns is what type of linguistic ability they had. Much conjecture has been made based on what skeletal remains have been found. Most believe their ability to make sounds would have been greater than that of modern day primates, but not of the same level as our own, though Neanderthal bones for specifically the purpose of creating many sounds have been discovered, and again new genetic tests have shown they possess some of the same genes for language that we do. If they had lacked even the ability to use a language as complex as our own, it most certainly would've been a detriment towards the interbreeding of the two species, being a large obstacle to effective communication between two groups who would've almost certainly already had different languages to begin with.

Judging from where their remains have been found, they lived mostly in Europe but also in parts of the middle east, Isreal and the like. The middle east sites even suggest Neanderthal populations "moving in" after earlier settlements of cro-magnon, which in turn hints at early conflicts between the two ending with the retreat and displacement of the cro-magnons back into northern Africa by about 100,000 years ago.

The Cro-magnons

Recent genetic testing has led many to believe that by about 50,000 years ago, the early forerunners of modern man, the cro-magnon, appear to have whithered to mere 5,000. From this small number, it seems all humans today emerged. That those alive today are desended from Neanderthals or a hybrid mixing of them and cro-magnon has also been more or less put to rest by genetic tests on Neanderthal DNA extracted from old samples revealing a distinctly different genetic signature. If Neanderthal and cro-magnon mixed at all, it certainly wasn't widespread.

Because they were using roughly the same set of tools, techniques, and technologies as the Neanderthals, and because they were smaller in size and strength, it appears they were at the time being boxed in by the Neaderthals, unable to get out of Africa. When they finally escaped Africa, their likely point of exit was the Gate of Grief in the southern part of the Red Sea which would've had a much lower water level at that time, thus allowing them a release from Africa without having to go through territory occupied by the Neanderthals.

This wandering of people into unknown land was no expedition out looking for adventure, but rather a slow expansion with people striking further into the unknown only as they managed to safely populate a new area not far away from land they already knew. After crossing the Gate of Grief, they appear to have spread along the southern part of the Arabian penninsula until they reached India, at which point different groups would've split ways, some going into Asia, some south into the areas of modern day Indonesia and Australia which were connected largely by a landbridge at the time, and some going back northwest towards Europe, once more re-igniting the the conflict with the Neanderthals.

If there's one thing which can be proven without much doubt, it's that Neanderthals did very little innovating to the set of technologies they had. Progress and improvement were almost non-existent. The cro-magnon, by contrast, began making better tools, including barbed arrowheads, fishhooks (implying advancing fishing techniques), sewing needles, and art that was unequivocally their own. Most of the Neanderthals would have had none of these things.

In addition to this, the cro-magnon were better able to adapt and exploit their environments, (as mentioned before) stored more food for lean seasons, and lived together in generally larger groups than did the Neanderthals. The latter of these is of particular importance, because it would now mean that the groups of cro-magnons would outnumber the Neanderthals they encountered.

Warfare on a "small and primitive" scale

In pondering how conflict between the two species went down, it's instructive to look for a second at how the so called "primitive" societies of today do so. Hunter gatherer groups such as the !Kung San of Africa, the Dani of New Guinea, and low-stage gardeners such as the Yanomamo who live in the jungles of South America all practice nearly constant warfare. Though in the past, the concept of the "noble savage" who lives at peace with himself, with nature, and with other tribes similar to his own was generally accepted, a more realistic portrait of such peoples has recently emerged. Tribal peoples can be very brutal, and some very often engage in warfare.

While what occurred between the cro-magnon and Neanderthals would've been a conflict between two different species, it strikes me that the territorial qualities of different animals tends to come when they have more to fear from their own kind than of others. In addition to the tribal societies that have remained into modern times, there is one other animal that practices a very similar style of warfare to tribal men; the chimpanzee.

Like the anthropologists who first observed many of the tribal societies after their first-contacts in the 20th century, those who first observed chimps thought them to be peaceful, unassuming, and non-violent. These preconceptions were shattered by the research of Jane Goodall who witnessed and recorded some chilling altercations between rival bands of chimps.

Though they often stick to their own territory, chimps occassionally will band together and move silently into that of opposing camps. Their behavior is described as being strange while they do it, different than normal, tense, nervous, very alert. They spend a lot of time listening for calls from individuals of the rival band, sniff around a lot, and otherwise pay very close attention for anything that might lead them to isolated members of the opposing camp. They generally only attack if they're able to find opponents whom they out-number by about three to one or more (two to hold down the opponent, one to bite, hit, smack, and otherwise beat as closely to death as possible before retreating).

Though many animals fight with one another, chimps and humans seem to be the only ones who have decided that it's smarter to annihilate your opponent rather than risk their recovery and retaliation, and consequently adopt this as a strategy. Tribal humans engage in warfare similar to chimps. They engage in raids into enemy territory, though the manner in which they do so certainly involves more organization. They generally do so at night, often times right before dawn perhaps so their opponents will not be able to retaliate while it still is dark. The goal in the end is roughly the same, kill only a few of the enemy and then escape before they can mount a counter attack. While tribal people do occassionally fight in the open at scheduled times, and some have pointed out that fighting can at times seem more like a sport which can get called off due to rain, the overall facts that they fight regularly, and fight specifically to kill, mean that even though the casualties might be low in given encounters, they add up. The end result is devastating. In some tribes, warfare accounts for 30% of all deaths in their population. Imagine putting numbers like that to our own civilizations of millions and billions and just how destructive constant and deadly such warfare is to peoples of such small numbers comes much more clearly into focus.

The First Genocide

So what exactly was it like when the cro-magnons met the Neanderthal in a conflict that ended with the latter's death? We'll never know for certain, but while it's not impossible that tribes of the time could've rallied others to fight with them against outside aggressors, it also isn't entirely likely either. Like modern day tribes who engage in warfare, it probably often took the form of silent raids conducted in the dark. It was most likely fought between primarily those on the furthest outposts of their respective groups.

In addition to the violent way some tribal groups resolve problems amongst themselves and rival groups, another common way to do so is to simply get up and leave, taking those along who want to go with you. As larger groups would've had more disputes, and the land and subsequent ability to live on it at the time could only sustain so many, people of given tribes probably had to split off and strike into the unknown whenever a group became too large and unmanageable, and the land no longer able to sustain such a large number. "Pioneers" so to speak, who were living on the fringes may not have been able to retreat back without facing hostility from their own kind. The first Neanderthals to encounter cro-magnon settlers might likely have been living in the same kind of situation.

Imagine going into unexplored territory only to discover that a group of Neanderthals is already living there. Afraid to go forward, but unable to go back because behind you, those of your own kind are a more formidable foe. Cro-magnons did in the end have better weapons and higher numbers. All in all, the conflict was probably very one-sided, just as is almost every conflict documented when one group of people which has superior numbers and technology encounters another group whose land they want. One thing it wasn't, was rapid. The process took about 15,000 years with the end result being no more Neanderthals in Europe only by 34,000 years ago. Considering how long it took europeans to completely spread into Australia and North America, 15,000 years is glacial-speed.

The size and strength of the Neanderthals served them well against the ancestors of modern man for quite some time, but in the end cro-magnon persisted. In addition to higher intelligence, and better technology, cro-magnon was able to out-live and out-breed the Neanderthal. That cro-magnon could live to the age of 60 years compared to Neanderthal's 40, meant a lot more accumulated knowledge to serve their kind. The Neanderthal's greater size in the end meant it required more food to survive when compared to cro-magnon who could subsist on less.

* * *

I remember a friend telling me once that he thought some Neanderthals might've managed to eck it out much longer, that some even made it to the middle ages, and that stories of beast-men and grendels killed by Beowulf weren't just fantastical tales, but might simply have been exaggerated ones of creatures that were real but whom they couldn't understand. While it's interesting, given the dates we know for certain, this doesn't seem too likely, and surviving the onslaught of primitive man only to be killed by the steel of medeval Europe doesn't sound too appetizing either. Another group of hominids representing a different branch from cro-magnon and Neanderthal managed to live safely in the remote isolation of an island called Flores in Indonesia up until about 13,000. Considering that this group only managed to survive so long by being far removed from our ancestors, some of whom were just beginning to domesticate crops and create agriculture at that time, and that Neanderthals in general were unable to even withstand people without this advancement, makes it seem a bit far-fetched to think they made it to the middle ages.

Depending in how human one considers them to be, the fate of the Neanderthals could very well be considered the first genocide, the intentional destruction of an entire species. Humankind destroyed its closest relatives long before we ever existed. In defense of ancient man, he probably did so out of some degree of survival, and perhaps lacked the ability or foresight to empathize with an intelligence such as the Neanderthals, however similar it was to his own. As for the Neanderthals, I'm sometimes left wondering how close to us they actually were. They almost certainly were aware of themselves and their existence, but I wonder if they knew what was happening to them as it did. Did they realize they were dying, and eventually would cease to exist? In another way, what happened to them represents a very grim portent of how human history would play out again and again as societies and civilizations would exterminate each other for future millenia to come.


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