We know for a fact that one intelligent race died off on earth. This race was, of course, the Neanderthals and their race came to and end about 30,000 years ago. What we do not know for sure is why they perished. While figuring this out is important for science, it is also important for practical reasons. After all, since they perished completely, so could we.
Over the years, various theories have been presented as to why they died off. One popular theory has been that modern humans simply out-competed the inferior Neanderthals with superior intelligence and technology (include social technology). While this nicely appeals to our collective ego (and classic social Darwinism), there are alternatives. The latest one is put forth by Clive Finlayson in his book The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out. Put crudely, his hypothesis is that luck was the decisive factor, as opposed to superiority on the part of our ancestors.
Of course, there is considerable evidence that our ancestors were more advanced than the Neanderthals. After all, our ancestors seem to have had better tools and weapons plus we have clear evidence that they produced art. Of course, Neanderthals were tool makers and some scientists believe that they could speak and might have created art (although evidence is still needed for this claim). In any case, they were clearly quite capable because they survived almost 300,000 years-not a bad run for a species.
While I am not an anthropologist, it is obvious that better tools and weapons would provide a considerable advantage. Also, the creation of art provides clear evidence that our ancestors had the capacity for abstract thought and communication. Also, the fact that they created art indicates that they had the luxury of doing so-indicating that our ancestors were doing well enough to expend time and resources on artistic endeavors.
To return to Finlayson’s luck hypothesis, he bases his view on the fact that about the time the Neanderthals were nearing their end, the forests of Eurasia began to shrink-thus resulting in a significant shift in the hunting conditions. According to Finlayson, modern humans humans evolved to be distance runners ideally suited to engage in long hunts. In contrast, Neanderthals were supposed to have bulky and strong bodies-suitable for waylaying animals in a forest, but no so good for chasing them across open lands. So, when Eurasia terrain switched from thick forest to open areas, modern humans gained the edge over the competition and thus we are here today and they are not. Finlayson notes that the Neanderthals survived the longest in wooded areas, thus lending support to his hypothesis.
Our success, as he sees it, is thus a matter of luck: we evolved as runners and Eurasia became a runners’ world. Of course, even if our intelligence was what enabled us to succeed then that would also have been a matter of luck. After all, (assuming evolution) we evolved intelligence through the same mechanism that we evolved as runners and whether intelligence or running won the day it would still just be a matter of chance.
As a runner, I obviously find his hypothesis appealing. However, I think that a reasonable case can be made against his hypothesis.
First, if the relative lack of endurance lead to the extinction of Neanderthals, then we would expect that animals that are not endurance hunters would also have been driven to extinction in Eurasia. After all, if the intelligent Neanderthals could not compete with modern humans, then animals should have not been able to do so. As such, we would expect that animals such as bears and large cats would have been driven to extinction along with the Neanderthals.
Of course, it could be replied that bears and cats could survive because they do not live in large family groups and hence can get along as individuals far better than human like creatures. In contrast, Neanderthals were group oriented and hence would suffer far more from the competition and would be driven to extinction before such “loner” predators. Of course, humans did not make the wolf go extinct (yet)-and the wolf is also a group animal. It could also be replied that while these other animals are predators, they did not occupy the same niche as humans, while Neanderthals did. If a niche can only belong to one species (for whatever reason) it would have been us or them.
Second, if the Neanderthals were comparable to modern humans in abilities and technology, they should have been able to compensate for their lower endurance (assuming they actually did have less endurance). After all, even animals that do not have particularly good endurance (such as Cheetah) are able to hunt quite effectively in open areas. Further, modern humans have proven quite capable at thriving in very diverse conditions due to our intelligence and technology. If the Neanderthals could not do the same, then this would indicate that they were, in fact, inferior in certain respects to modern humans-thus lending support to the hypothesis that we succeeded based on these superior capabilities. Our alleged edge in endurance alone should not, one would think, be enough to result in the extinction of another intelligent race.
Of course, as any runner will tell you, a slight edge in endurance can make all the difference in a race. So, perhaps it made a difference in this race as well-we got across that finish line just a bit earlier for the win. However, it still seems reasonable to wonder why they went completely extinct rather than surviving as our other competitors (wolves, bears, cats, and so on) have done. Perhaps our ancestors simply expanded into the only niche they could survive in and that spelled their doom. Or perhaps our ancestors warred against them until they were no longer able to survive (after all, we wage wars of extermination against our own kind). Or perhaps some other factor, unrelated to us, wiped them out-such as a disease. We will almost certainly never know. Perhaps someday our successors will be asking the same sort of questions about us.