History is littered with so many tales of conflict and sacrifice that it's almost impossible to keep count. Even so, a war that lasted 100,000 years seems like it would stand out in our collective memory. So why is it then that no one seems to know about it? The simple answer is until recently, historians didn't even know it had happened.
The notion of this epic war emerged after some ancient remains were discovered in the Middle East. While investigating the bones, archaeologists found clear evidence of what could only be an extremely enduring war. And now, its repercussions are making us really reconsider our ancestry.
Life wasn't as simple as we've been led to believe
You might be thinking to yourself, what did they have to fight about way back then? There was no oil, religion hadn't developed yet, and it definitely couldn't have kicked off from a particularly nasty Twitter comment. Well, while it might seem that times were simpler before all our contemporary advancements, things were also significantly more primal. There was a constant struggle to survive.
Every day was life or death
Sure, a few million years ago we weren't slogging into work for a 9-5 or struggling with rising rent prices, but we did have a few pretty critical responsibilities. Those were namely food and shelter, which when put together, equal survival. And while that may sound pretty straightforward, it was anything but easy. Oh, and there was competition. Fierce competition.
Where it all began
To get a better picture of the situation at the time, let's journey to the continent of Africa. After discovering fossils of those who lived there anywhere from two to six million years ago, this is where scientists believe human beings evolved. Back in 1960, for instance, researchers uncovered fossils in Tanzania that appeared to be from a cross between humans and apelike creatures. And that's only scratching the surface.
As many as 20 varied species evolved that could be described as humans. We still can’t agree on how they’re all connected, however, and it’s not clear which left successors and which just vanished. The fossil record is that bad! And while many of these species didn’t have any descendants at all, at least one did: modern humans.
The journey to Europe
Around 600,000 years ago or so, one of the human populations in Africa divided into two groups. The first stayed where it was and would in time evolve into what we know as modern humans. The other set off on a journey that ended in Europe. These folks were Homo neanderthalensis – a group more commonly known as the Neanderthals.
Losing the evolutionary battle
Some call the Neanderthals “our cousins.” That’s because, species-wise, we may have a common parent with them. Strangely enough, though, all of these species probably existed at the same time. One species known as Homo erectus, for instance, didn’t go extinct until about 135,000 years ago. That’s actually fairly recent in human history if you think about it!
The human and Neanderthal split
Experts are not certain when exactly modern humans and the Neanderthals split, and some believe that the division occurred at least a million years ago. But split they did, and the outcome resulted in separate and distinct populations. In recent times, we’ve also discovered that the species that became the Neanderthals evolved from an Asian branch – called the Denisovans.
The existence of the Denisovans was deduced from “alien” DNA in ancient bones that didn’t seem to belong to Neanderthals. Then in 2010 geneticists found that a few bits of bone and tooth discovered in a Siberian cave indeed contained Denisovan DNA. And if that isn’t enough, a third group may have existed: a dwarf species with long feet which scientists called Homo floresiensis.
Spreading out from Africa
But let’s go forward to more recent times. Most scientists believe that the folks left behind in Africa evolved into modern humans. These people then spread out into the world. There’s also the so-called “multi-regional” model, which envisions humans having evolved in various places after they had already moved out of Africa.
Not all of us are pure Homo Sapiens
In the multi-regional model, the evolved humans intermixed, and the result was the people you see today. But the evidence from genetics supports the “out of Africa” model of evolution, meaning that’s the theory most scientists go with. And the species that definitely did leave Africa long before modern humans also left their own trace. A small percentage of us still have minuscule amounts of Neanderthal or Denisovan genes, as you may know if you’ve ever taken a DNA test!
Learning with fossils
And we can tell a lot about our ancestors through fossils. The oldest remains of humans that had similar bodies to ours come in the shape of two skulls found in southwest Ethiopia. These bones, from Omo National Park, date back 195,000 years. That seems like a long time ago, sure, but it’s nothing when you consider that we’ve discovered ancient humans from six million years ago.
Human's lucky break
Those original migrants from Africa, though? They didn’t exactly thrive. In fact, they teetered on the edge of becoming extinct, numbering no more than ten thousand at their lowest point. But, of course, things would look up for the human species. And there’s a surprising reason why.
Entering the ice age
About 70,000 years back, a supervolcano erupted in Sumatra, Indonesia. Mount Toba’s explosion likely caused a “nuclear winter” and an ice age that lasted a millennium. You’d think that would have spelled doom for humans, but no! It’s possible, though, that they only emerged from the big chill by cooperating and forming close-knit kin groups. In time, these may have become tribes.
Learning to work together
Once humans had learned how to cooperate with each other, they started to do much better. A second wave left Africa, and this time the people really were like us – both to look at and in how they behaved. They soon spread across the globe, and their numbers ballooned. Now, of course, there are several billion of us on the planet.
Living with Neanderthals
But when our ancestors left Africa, they did not simply wander into an empty world. No, some of the ancient humans who had left before them still lived in other countries. And among them were the Neanderthals. They were later named after the Neander Valley – the spot in Germany where their fossils were first discovered.
Adapting to the cold
As you may have seen from reconstructions, the Neanderthals had sloping foreheads and big ridges for their eyebrows. Their massive noses were useful, too, as they allowed them to warm and humidify the cold air that they breathed. Overall, the frigid climate Neanderthals lived in had led them to evolve to be rather short and stocky. They did have large brains like us, though.
Neanderthals were smarter than they looked
These brains enabled the Neanderthals to create complicated tools from bone and stone. It’s even possible that they knew enough chemistry to create their own firestarters. Certainly, they had a type of medicine that they used on themselves. And in their downtime, they created art. Neanderthals truly flourished in Europe after their first appearance 250,000 years ago.
The European obstacle
But, eventually, modern humans spread rapidly into the Near East. We know this because remains from as long as 130,000 years ago have turned up in Israel. At the same time, members of the species may have been leaving tools in what is now the United Arab Emirates. However, as people tried to move from the Near East into Europe, they came across a stumbling block.
The Neanderthals were strong in numbers
Just like our ancestors, Neanderthals had learned the value of cooperation. They hunted big game in groups, for instance. But they were apex predators, with very little threat in their environment from others. That meant overpopulation always posed a threat. Not only that, but it’s also likely they fought over territory.
Being territorial is part of our DNA
This desire to acquire and defend land is not restricted to humans. Chimpanzees exhibit this behavior, too. Males of the species will come together and go out to battle with rivals in a way that closely resembles war between humans. This suggests that cooperating in aggressive conflict evolved in our shared ancestor. And Neanderthals are likely to have done the same.
Weapons for hunting and defense
At the very least, Neanderthals deployed weapons to hunt game. They would gang up on animals and bring them down with spears. Even mammoths weren’t too much of a challenge for the plucky hominins. And with all that, it seems difficult to believe that the Neanderthals wouldn’t have used their weapons to defend their territories.
There’s even evidence of this happening. Yes, that’s what we’ve found from a 36,000-year-old skeleton uncovered at St. Césaire, France, as its skull features a curious healed fracture. Not surprising given the dangerous times, but forensics shows that this injury was likely made by a sharp tool. In other words, the skeleton is that of a man who was speared in the head. Ouch.
Injury was common
Actually, Neanderthal skeletons often show signs of damage that later healed or bones that degenerated after being hurt. And while it’s possible they received injuries from the animals they were hunting, they could also have been the victims of ancient club attacks or spearings. Humans of the same era show the same kinds of scarring.
These injuries were no coincidence
Neanderthal remains also show a lot of arm breaks – possibly caused when they tried to ward off spear strikes. One skeleton found in Iraq even appears to have a deep spear wound in the chest. And such traumatic injuries were apparently common in younger Neanderthals. They’ve come in patterns that seem to indicate small but lasting conflicts between tribes – or, in other words, a long war.
An even match
But the strongest suggestion that there was an ancient war is the boundary between territories. While modern humans spread rapidly across most of the planet, eradicating any species that pre-existed, they made relatively slow progress in the Neanderthal-inhabited areas. So it seems that the Neanderthals fought back, resisting the flood of modern humans for up to 100,000 years.
Africa was the only safe place for humans
This seems a clear answer to why modern humans stayed in Africa for so long. There, they didn’t encounter an environment that was overly dangerous for them. Elsewhere, though? There were territorial – and armed – creatures that were determined to stop them from taking their land.
The brutal journey north
Proof that the Neanderthals were a fearsome enemy? Well, even though early modern humans first left Africa around 200,000 years ago, the Neanderthals didn’t actually disappear for another 150,000 years after that. Homo sapiens pushed into Neanderthal territory in Greece and Israel, too, before being forced back. But in the end, one species would emerge victorious.
New remains reveal Neanderthals haven't been gone all that long
Archaeology reveals the ebb and flow of the two populations. Two skeletons – one Homo sapiens, one Neanderthal – have been found at the same site, although one is much older than the other. Even as recently as around 50,000 years ago, Neanderthals could still be discovered in the Middle East, as finds at the Kebara cave in Israel show.
Fighting for land
Why didn’t the two species just live alongside each other? Well, while they may have done for long periods – and the mixture of their genes shows that they must have been in contact – the Homo sapiens population alone must have grown. That meant they needed land, which forced them to fight over territory.
The Neanderthals were almost victorious
And that conflict lasted, it seems, for tens of thousands of years. Both sides had the same sorts of equipment and likely fought in similar ways, meaning they were pretty much evenly matched. But the Neanderthals prevailed for most of the war.
How did the Neanderthals do it? To begin with, they knew the land. They’d been there for many millennia, after all. They also had large eyes, which probably meant that they could see better than Homo sapiens in poor light. And to top it all off, they were strong and bulky. Basically, they were dangerous if you got close to them!
Humans' secret weapon
But the Neanderthals did lose in the end, although we can’t say exactly why. Perhaps it was simply that Homo sapiens developed weapons that allowed them to strike the Neanderthals from a distance. They had bows, clubs that they could throw and equipment that allowed spears to be launched from further away.
Humans had a better diet
Another theory is based on what the two sides ate. After scientists studied isotopes left in skeletons from both Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, they found that the latter group took almost all their protein from meat. Humans, on the other hand, had begun to consume fish. This broader diet helped produce bigger populations and could have led to the Neanderthals being overwhelmed by sheer numbers.
They didn't go without a fight
Whether it was down to a better diet or better weapons, though, the humans eventually destroyed the Neanderthals. But it didn’t happen quickly, so we shouldn’t imagine weak or peaceable enemies. On the contrary: humans had met fierce resistance that lasted for many thousands of years before the Neanderthals went extinct.
Testing for Neanderthal
It wasn’t all war, though, and the Neanderthals are still with us – although in a different way. Some people from Europe and Asia have within their genomes proof that humans and Neanderthals were able to mate. In other places, other “ghost” species have contributed their DNA to the human mosaic. So, spare a thought for these ancient people when you next take a DNA test. You may even find out you’re part Neanderthal yourself...