Post-apocalyptic Neanderthals

Just to reinforce my previous point that it’s natural to think of Neanderthals as living in a post-apocalyptic setting, here’s anthropologist Charles Finlayson:

By the time the classic Neanderthals emerged, during the last interglacial around 125,000 years ago, they were already a people doomed to extinction. Like the hippos, rhinos, and elephants of the eurasian forest, the Neanderthals were a population of living dead, existing on borrowed time.

The Humans Who Went Extinct, p. 116

Finlayson argues that this is so because Neanderthals developed to be ambush hunters, relying on woodlands for close range hunting. Because of climate change after 125,000 years ago, the woodland areas that the Neanderthals exploited best gave way to drier, treeless terrain. Although the Neanderthals survived for almost another 100,000 years, this was the beginning of the end. The apocalypse had already happened, and Neanderthals were playing out the aftermath.

There is more to say on this… stay tuned.

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

6 thoughts on “Post-apocalyptic Neanderthals”

    1. A critique from Harpending is a ringing endorsement for Finlayson in my book.

      What impresses me most about Finlayson is that he’s appropriately cautious when the evidence is limited. Also, he recognizes that things are complex. He doesn’t bother so much with either/or debates (e.g. were Neanderthals primarily hunters or scavengers) – we’re talking about complex, intelligent organisms and ambiguous evidence, so we need to be cautious.

    2. Actually, Harpending seems pretty complimentary in much of this. I’m mostly interested in Neanderthals right now, so I skipped over many earlier parts of the book that dealt with earlier human evolution.

      Harpending mentions genetics. Finlayson is not a geneticist, but I think he admirably incorporates genetic results into this work, and accepts a pretty much mainstream interpretation of those results – that is, while modern humans indisputably arose in Africa, how they spread out and colonized the rest of the world is a complex question, and simple replacement of archaic populations by moderns is probably not what happened.

      1. In fairness I did not bother to more than skim the review, but it ends on a sour note. That could just be bad writing.

  1. But wouldn’t the Neanderthals still be around if not for the arrival of archaic humans?

    What’s more, if the recent study about admixture of Neanderthal DNA in modern populations is correct, there is more Neanderthal DNA in existence now than any time before, up to the equivalent of 50 million complete Neanderthals. By that measure, the species has been enormously successful, albeit slightly less successful than H. Sapiens Sapiens.

    1. Hey, KingM, good to hear from you! I’m generally AWOL on Facebook & bad at keeping in touch.

      Finlayson seems to be suggesting that even without the arrival of later humans in Europe, the Neanderthals would have likely gone extinct anyway as the climate and ecology of Europe changed and their favored habitat disappeared. In his book he doesn’t emphasize competition for resources among later humans and Neanderthals. Clearly other anthropologists have a different take on the causes of Neanderthal extinction, and I doubt the question will ever be settled.

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