When modern humans arrived in Europe about 40,000 years ago, they made a discovery that would change the course of history. This has to do with the way we see the concept of war.
The continent was already populated by our evolutionary cousins, the Neanderthals, and again recent evidence suggests that they had their own relatively sophisticated culture and technology. But in a few thousand years, Neanderthals have disappeared, leaving our species to continue to spread to all corners of the globe.
Exactly how Neanderthals disappeared remains a hotly debated topic among researchers. The two main explanations given in recent years have been competition with newly arrived modern people and global climate change.
Persistence Neanderthal genetic material to all modern people outside Africa it shows that the two species interacted and even reproduced. But there may be other types of interactions.
Some researchers have suggested that there could have been competition for resources such as prey and raw materials for stone tools. Others suggested violent interactions and even wars, and that this could have caused the Neanderthals to die.
This idea might seem convincing, given the violent war history of our species. But proving the existence of an early war is a problematic, albeit fascinating, field of research.
War or murder?
Only bones preserved with gunshot wounds can give us a sure indication of violence at any given time. But how do you separate examples of murder or family struggle from prehistoric “war”?
To some extent, this question has been solved by several examples of mass killings, in which entire communities were massacred and buried together in several European sites, dating from the Neolithic period (about 12,000 years ago, when the first given agriculture).
For a time, these findings seem to have solved the problem, suggesting that agriculture has led to an explosion of the population and pressure for groups to fight. However, even older cases of mass murder suggested by the bones discovered by archaeologists have reopened the debate.
Another challenge is that it is very difficult to arrive at a definition of war applicable to prehistoric societies without becoming so broad and vague that it loses its meaning. As the social anthropologist argues Raymond Kelly, although group violence can take place in tribal societies, it is not always seen as “war” by those involved.
For example, in the dispensation of justice for murder, witchcraft, or other perceived social deviance, the “perpetrator” could be attacked by dozens of others. However, in such societies, acts of war usually involve a single individual being ambushed and killed by a coordinated group.
Both scenarios look essentially identical to an external observer, however one is considered an act of war, while the other is not. In this sense, war is defined by its social context rather than by the simple number of people involved.
A key point is that a very particular type of logic comes into play in which any member of an opposing group is seen as representing their entire community and thus becomes a “valid target”. For example, one group could kill a member of another group as a reward for a raid in which the victim was not involved.
In this sense, war is a state of mind that involves abstract and lateral thinking as much as a set of physical behaviors. Such acts of war can then be committed (usually by men) against women and children as well as men and there are evidence of this behavior among the skeletons of early modern humans.
What does all this mean for the question of whether modern humans and Neanderthals went to war?
There is no doubt that Neanderthals engaged and were the beneficiaries of acts of violence, with fossils showing repeated examples of blunt injuries, especially to the head. But many of these predate the appearance of modern humans in Europe and therefore could not have happened during encounters between the two species.
Similarly, among the rare fossil records of the first modern anatomical humans, there are different examples of gun injuries, but most date back thousands of years after the Neanderthals disappeared.
Where we have evidence of violence against Neanderthals, it is almost exclusively among male victims. This means that they are less likely to represent “war”, as opposed to competition between men.
Although there is no doubt that Neanderthals committed violent acts, the extent to which they were able to conceptualize “war” in the way it is understood by modern human cultures is debatable. It is certainly possible that violent altercations took place when members of the small and scattered populations of these two species came into contact (although we have no conclusive evidence for this), but they cannot realistically be characterized as war.
Were modern humans the reason for the disappearance of the Neanderthals?
Certainly, we can see a pattern of trauma related to violence in the modern human skeletons of the Upper Paleolithic period (50,000 years ago), which remains the same in more recent Mesolithic and Neolithic times. However, it is not at all clear that Neanderthals follow this pattern.
On the bigger issue, if modern humans were responsible for the extinction of Neanderthals, it is worth noting that Neanderthals in many parts of Europe appear to have disappeared before our species arrived. This suggests that modern people cannot be completely guilty, either through war or competition.
However, what has been present over the period has been dramatic and persistent climate change, which seems to have decreased preferred habitats of the Neanderthals. Modern humans, although they had just left Africa, seem to have been more flexible to different environments and thus to better deal with increasingly frequent open habitats that could have endangered the survival of Neanderthals. .
So, although the first modern Europeans could have been the first people capable of organized war, we cannot say that this behavior was responsible or even necessary for the disappearance of the Neanderthals. It is possible that they were simply victims of the natural evolution of our planet.