Biology Magazine

Cannabalistic Neanderthals Hunted Humans?

Posted on the 22 June 2015 by Reprieve @EvoAnth
Cannabalistic Neanderthals hunted humans?

Homo sapiens evolved in Africa, but we soon spread around the world. In Eurasia we encountered our close relatives, the Neanderthals. However, this family reunion might not have been a happy one. At least, not according to the "Neanderthal predation theory" (the term "theory" being used very loosely there). It argues that the Neanderthals hunted humans!

Now, the NPT also claims that these human-hunting Neanderthals were super-strong super-predators. Which is absurd. However, that doesn't invalidate the idea that there was still some conflict between our two species. Perhaps regular, non-ape Neanderthals hunted humans? Maybe there is some merit to that part of the NPT at least

Danny Vendramini - inventor of the NPT - puts forward four key pieces of evidence for Neanderthal predation of humans in his totally legit scientific paper (insert snickering as appropriate):

  1. There is evidence of some Neanderthals eating other Neanderthals! This couldn't have been a ritual or anything because Neanderthals were dumb. Hominins were actually a key part of their diet.
  2. Humans arrived in the Middle East, then left again. Because they were driven away by these super-predators!
  3. There was a genetic bottleneck in humans, because most of us were eaten.

So, does any of this actually provide evidence Neanderthals hunted humans?

Did they drive us out the Middle East?

Eurgh. Dealing with this location during the human migration is very, very confusing. So I'll give you the quick summary, but bear in mind this is far from complete. As such please don't shout at me if you think I've left stuff out. John Hawks has a pretty nifty post fleshing this out if you'd like to learn more.

Basically, Neanderthals lived in the region for a long time. However, the climate began to change and so they left. Maybe the climate change prompted their favourite prey to move back into Europe, who knows. At that point modern humans began to arrive in the region (maybe they were following their favourite food too). They lived their happily for a while, until the climate (or whatever) flipped back; forcing them to retreat back into Africa and allowing the Neanderthals to return to the region. And thus the status quo was restored. That is, until humans went and conquered the whole planet.

The important part of all this for Danny and the NPT is the "swaps". How long did it take humans/Neanderthals to leave/arrive? Was there any overlap? Did they eat us during those overlapping periods?

The evidence for that seems to be a "no". Humans lived there from 130 - 90,000 years ago; with Neanderthals returning ~80,000 years ago. However, the number of fossils from these transitions is very small; so we can't really say anything for sure. Which you would think counts as evidence against the NPT; or if you were being generous neither for nor against.

Yet Danny takes it as evidence Neanderthals were actually hunting us. The lack of evidence is actually evidence we had to adopt a nomadic lifestyle that left little behind in order to escape our predators.

Moreover, if EMHs had been displaced from their cave sites by NP and forced to adopt a nomadic existence 'below the Neanderthal radar' to avoid capture, this would also contribute to the group's 'invisibility' in the Levant archaeology

So if there's no evidence that Neanderthals hunted humans, that's actually evidence Neanderthals hunted humans. How am I supposed to argue with that logic?

Did Neanderthals eat each other?


Credit where's due, Danny got this one right. There are several examples of Neanderthals and their close relatives who had their flesh removed with stone tools. Now, we can't say who did this or why they did it. Yet these cuts often have a strong similarity to butchery marks and only one species was in the region at the time. So yeah, cannibalism does seem to have occurred.

So does this count as a point for Danny and the NPT?

I'm not so sure. He posits that this canniablism was a last resort in times of extreme stress. Modern humans were their preferred prey. Yet we haven't found any evidence of cannibalised modern humans. See the issue? We've got several examples of the rare behaviour, but none of the common one. To me this suggests his idea about how often things were being eaten is a tad off.

Did we all almost die?

The anhilation of all human life is something we see in a lot of (mostly bad) Hollywood movies. Yet this almost happened once! As the NPT notes, there was actually a population bottleneck in our past. The number of humans dropped down to only ~2,000! We would have been an endangered species.

So does this count as evidence for the NPT? Not quite. Crucially for Danny and his theory, this bottleneck needed to have happened after we met the Neanderthals for the first time. Which, if you'll recall was in the Middle East around 80,000 years ago.

Now, this bottleneck was often placed at around 70,000 years ago and attributed to the eruption of a super-volcano. However, many of these claims have their origin in out-dated genetic studies. More recent research has muddled the picture somewhat. In fact, now the evidence seems to indicate that this bottleneck was actually a long term issue; that goes back perhaps a hundred thousand years earlier.

In other words, it may well predate our encounter with the Neanderthals! And even if it doesn't there's certainly enough ambiguity here to stop me calling it evidence for Danny's idea.

Is there any other evidence Neanderthals hunted humans?

All the evidence Danny cites in favour of the NPT seems to be hogwash. But is there any evidence that Neanderthals hunted humans legitimate researchers have found?

In fact, there's actually very little evidence for interaction between humans and Neanderthals, let alone evidence that Neanderthals hunted humans. This is very frustrating because we know they actually did interact. Genetic evidence confirms this. Yet when trying to find evidence of that interaction all we find frustratingly little. We used kind of similar tools. Does that mean we were teaching each other? Did we trade? Or is it just a coincidence?

So no. Not even legitimate research confirms Danny's idea that Neanderthals hunted humans. Better luck next time.

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