how different the world would be if the Neanderthals had prevailed

In evolutionary terms, the human population has soared within seconds. The news that it has now reached 8 billion seems inexplicable if one thinks of our history.

For 99% of the last million years of our existence, people rarely met other humans. There were only about 10,000 Neanderthals living at any one time. Today there are about 800,000 people in the same space occupied by a Neanderthal man. Also, since humans live in social groups, the next closest Neanderthal group was likely more than 100km away. Finding a mate outside of one’s family has been a challenge.

Neanderthals were more inclined to stay in their family groups and were more wary of new people. If they had surpassed our own species (homo sapiens), the population density would probably be much lower. It’s hard to imagine them building cities, for example, as they were genetically disposed to be less friendly to those who weren’t their immediate family.

Based on estimates from the History Database of the Global Environment and the United Nations.
Max Roser, CC BY-SA

The reasons for our dramatic population growth may lie in the early days of Homo sapiens more than 100,000 years ago. The genetic and anatomical differences between us and extinct species such as Neanderthals have made us more like domesticated animal species. Large herds of cows, for example, may better tolerate the stress of living together in a small space than their wild ancestors who lived in small, widely spaced groups. These genetic differences have changed our attitude towards people outside our group. We have become more tolerant.

Similarities between modern humans and domesticated dogs, in contrast to archaic humans (here Neanderthals) and wild wolves.
Theofanopoulou C PLoS ONE 12(10): e0185306, CC BY

How homo sapiens they were more likely to interact with groups outside their family, they created a more diverse gene pool which reduced health problems. For example, Neanderthals from El Sidrón in Spain showed 17 genetic deformities in just 13 people. Such mutations were virtually non-existent in subsequent populations of our own species.

But larger populations also increase the spread of the disease. Neanderthals may have generally lived shorter lives than modern humans, but their relative isolation will have protected them from the infectious diseases that have sometimes wiped out entire populations of homo sapiens.

Put more food on the table

Our species may also have had 10-20% faster reproductive rates than previous human species. But having more children only increases the population if there is enough food to eat.

Our genetic penchant for friendliness took shape about 200,000 years ago. From this time on, there is archaeological evidence of the raw materials to make tools moved across the landscape more widely.

Starting 100,000 years ago, we created networks along which new types of hunting weapons and jewelry such as shell beads could spread. The ideas were widely shared and there were seasonal aggregations in which homo sapiens they would gather for rituals and socializing. People had friends to rely on in different groups when they ran out of food.

And we may also have needed more emotional contact and new types of relationships outside of our human social worlds. In an alternate world where Neanderthals thrived, it may be less likely that humans would have cultivated relationships with animals through domestication.

Dramatic changes in the environment

Things could also have gone differently if the environments had not generated so many sudden shortages on many occasions, such as the sharp decline of plants and animals. Were it not for these random changes, the Neanderthals might have survived.

The sharing of resources and ideas among groups has enabled people to live more efficiently off the earth, deploying more effective technologies, and trading food with each other in times of crisis. This was probably one of the main reasons our species thrived when the climate changed while others perished. homo sapiens they were better suited to changeable and risky weather conditions. This is partly because our species may depend on networks in times of crisis.

During the height of the last ice age some 20,000 years ago, temperatures across Europe were 8-10 degrees Celsius cooler than today, with those in Germany being more similar to those in northern Siberia. Most of northern Europe was covered in ice for six to nine months of the year.

Social connections provided the means by which inventions could spread among groups to help us adapt. These included spear throwers to make hunting more efficient, fine needles to make tight clothing and keep people warmer, food preservation, and hunting with domesticated wolves. As a result, more people have survived nature’s wheel of fortune.

homo sapiens they were generally careful not to consume too many resources such as deer or fish, and were probably more aware of their life cycles than much earlier human species could have been. For example, people in British Columbia, Canada only took males when fishing for salmon.

In some cases, however, these life cycles were hard to see. During the last ice age, animals such as mammoths, which roamed vast territories invisible to human groups, became extinct. There are more than one hundred depictions of mammoths in Rouffignac in France dating to the time of their disappearance, suggesting that people suffered from this loss. But it is more likely that mammoths would have survived if not for the rise of homo sapiensbecause there would have been fewer Neanderthals to hunt them.

Depiction of a mammoth in the Rouffignac cave in France.
Wikimedia Commons

Too smart for our own good

Our liking for each other’s company and how spending time together fosters our creativity was the creation of our species. But it came at a price.

The more technology humanity develops, the more our use of it harms the planet. Intensive agriculture is draining our soils of nutrients, overfishing is destroying the seas, and the greenhouse gases we release when we produce the products we now rely on are causing extreme weather. Overexploitation was not inevitable, but our species was the first to do so.

We can hope that visual evidence of destruction in our natural world will change our attitudes over time. We have changed rapidly as we needed to throughout our history. After all, there is no planet B. But if Neanderthals had survived in our place, we would never have needed it.

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