Social Orgainzation, Group Conflict and the Demise of Neanderthals

By Gat, Azar | Mankind Quarterly, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Social Orgainzation, Group Conflict and the Demise of Neanderthals


Gat, Azar, Mankind Quarterly


The article suggests that violent conflict, neglected by recent scholarship, was a key factor in bringing about the Neanderthals' demise in the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition. Relying on the general archaeological evidence regarding group sizes and drawing an analogy from historical hunter-gatherer societies, the author argues that Cro-Magnon man probably had large, 'tribal', groupings as opposed to the Neanderthal's small ones. liter alia this would have given Homo sapiens sapiens a decisive advantage in warfare.

Key Words: Neanderthals, Cro-Magnons, Upper Paleolithic, Social Organization, Group Conflict.

The Neanderthals and their fate have been the subject of intense controversy for more than a century. Despite vastly expanding knowledge, the mystery still seems far from resolved, and the argument shows no signs of ebbing. There is now a growing consensus that, at least in Western Europe, the Neanderthals were replaced by Homo sapiens sapiens Cro-Magnons and did not contribute substantially to the modern gene pool. Otherwise, most of the old questions remain, inevitably converging on the fact of the replacement itself Why did the Neanderthals lose out in the competition which took place in their own specialized habitat, Europe of the Ice Age, to which they were physiologically and behaviorally adapted? This apparent outcome necessarily overshadows the discussion, for it surely tells us something about the Neanderthals and about the ways in which they differed from modern man. Theories explaining the Neanderthals' demise abound. Was their Mousterian tool-kit less efficient than that of Upper Palaeolithic Homo sapiens sapiens, for example in hunting (and fishing)? Was their family structure looser, providing less male support to the infants? Did he lack Homo s.s.' planning depth (Binford 1985, 1989; Soffer 1994), or advanced lingual capabilities (Lieberman 1989, 1993; Davidson and Noble 1989; Chazan 1995)? Where not these aspects of an inferior symbolic capability, evident in the artistic `creative explosion' which marks the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition?

All these explanations may be correct to some degree, and they are probably mutually reinforcing rather than mutually exclusive. However, the aim of this article is to point out an additional, and potentially crucial, factor, which curiously has been almost entirely overlooked. I wish to suggest, first, that, like all known modern hunter-gatherers, Upper Palaeolithic Homo sapiens sapiens had regional groupings, whereas the Neanderthal had not. Some scholars have argued more or less along similar lines, emphasizing the advantages of these extended networks for economic cooperation among the newcomers (Wobst 1976; Gamble 1976, 1983, 1986; 1996; Stringer and Gamble 1993; Pfeiffer 1982; Gilman 1984; White 1985; Parker and Milbrath 1993; Soffer 1994; Shreeve 1995; Mellars 1996). This article, however, claims that regional grouping also conferred a decisive, inescapable, advantage in conflict.

The premise of this article, shared by the majority of experts on the subject, is that Upper Palaeolithic, anatomically fully modern, Homo sapiens sapiens was 'biosocially' similar to living Ilomo (e.g. Trinkaus, 1989a, 1989b; Knecht, Pike-Tay, and White 1993); that is, fully possessed of the biological endowments that would make possible all of the subsequent socio-cultural development of Homo. The overwhelming notion that those who created the amazing symbolic representations of the Upper Palaeolithic are practically 'us' is widely held. If this is agreed, then a carefully-controlled analogy from the full range of historically known hunter-gatherer societies is one of our most useful tools for gauging Upper Palaeolithic social life (taking into account the points made e.g. by Clark 1968; Gamble 1986; Foley 1988; Parker and Milbrath 1993; Steele and Shennan 1996; Lourandos 1997). As we know, all modern hunter-gatherer societies exhibit a regional group structure (`dialect tribe'; Birdsell 1968), averaging 500.

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