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Neanderthal warrior            Source: Gorodenkoff / Adobe Stock

Neanderthals and Humans Were at War… For 100,000 Years!


Once much of Eurasia was dominated by Neanderthals, our archaic human ancestors. And the extinction of Neanderthals is one of the great mysteries in science. An evolutionary biologist and paleontologist now believe that the extinction of Neanderthals was the result of losing a 100,000-year war with anatomically modern humans. It seems that the expansion of our ancient human ancestors across Eurasia was a result of conquest.

The Neanderthals and the ancestors of the modern humans separated in Africa over 500,000 years ago. Homo neanderthalensis migrated into the Middle East and spread over much of Europe and Asia. According to BBC Future they “They weren't our ancestors, but a sister species, evolving in parallel.” The Neanderthals were not primitive cavemen and women: they were comparatively quite advanced. They were capable hunters who lived in complex social systems. Neanderthals had a culture, and even buried their dead, which may indicate they even had some form of religion.

Neanderthals Were Predators and Territorial Like Us

Anatomically modern humans left Africa about 200,000 years ago. We know that they encountered Neanderthals because there is some evidence of interbreeding between the two hominins. This may indicate that the two species lived in harmony and even cooperated.

Nicholas R Longrich, who teaches evolutionary biology and paleontology at the University of Bath, Britain wrote in Science Alert that “It's tempting to see them in idyllic terms, living peacefully with nature and each other, like Adam and Eve in the Garden.” Many philosophers believed that war and violence are modern phenomena that were biproducts of civilization.

Prehistoric Neanderthals or Homo Sapiens? It's difficult to say as we were so similar. (Gorodenkoff / Adobe Stock)

But as Longrich writes in Science Alert “Biology and paleontology paint a darker picture.” Neanderthals were predators and they were hard-wired to be territorial. They would defend their territory with violence, and they would work in a cooperative way to fight off all trespassers. This means that the extinction of Neanderthals could not have been easy.

Territorial Behavior

Defending one’s territory and using violence to do so, if necessary, was a trait that Neanderthals, modern humans and chimpanzees all inherited from their ancestors. As a result, modern humans and our sister species, the Neanderthals, were programmed to be violent when protecting their territory.

Longrich told BBC Future that “cooperative aggression evolved in the common ancestor of chimps and ourselves 7 million years ago.” This impulse is the root of all organized violence and war. The expert also stated in Science Alert that “War isn't a modern invention, but an ancient, fundamental part of our humanity.” Evidence for this is everywhere in the archaeological record and in our earliest myths.

Neanderthals were remarkably similar to modern humans. They behaved as we do, and Longrich said in Science Alert that “If Neanderthals shared so many of our creative instincts, they probably shared many of our destructive instincts, too.” So, when the ancestors of modern humans left Africa and encountered other species of archaic humans, conflict and war was inevitable.

The Stone Age archaeological record has provided us with some examples of prehistoric stone tools or weapons of violence. Probably, these tools were used for daily life and territorial defense. (Jiffy Photography / Adobe Stock)

A look at the paleontological record shows that there is evidence of trauma on the bones of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals. The primitive weapons found by archaeologists at prehistoric sites also tell a tale of violence, as the bone record does. In particular, it seems that young Neanderthal males showed signs of injuries from blunt force trauma. These would have been the fighters of their groups and this may indicate that they were injured or killed in violent confrontations. While some deaths may have been accidental, some may have been the result of raids and ambushes.

The Extinction of Neanderthals Took 100,000 Years!

There is a real possibility that Neanderthals and early humans were engaged in violence similar to the inter-tribal conflicts of the past and even present. The Neanderthals resisted the incursions of modern humans into their territories. Longrich told the Daily Express that this “led to a 100,000-year war to determine who was top dog.” So, the extinction of Neanderthals was not fast: it took humans a long time to achieve.

The Neanderthals were formidable foes. This was because they survived for tens of thousands of years after encountering modern humans. They were capable hunters, and they had the skills and weapons to resist newcomers. Moreover, they were stockier and stronger than our ancestors, and probably had better night vision, which could have helped them in ambushes after dark. This means that the extinction of Neanderthals was not necessarily an obvious outcome. We won but not so fast . . .

A prehistoric cave painting showing a battle between two groups, who may have been Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens. As we know, the Homo Sapiens were the ones who won the war. (lolloj / Adobe Stock)

So How Did Humans Eventually Win This Long War?

The war between the two human species ebbed and flowed for many thousands of years. Likely there was a stalemate between the two species for countless millennia and it was a war of attrition. BBC Future reports that “In Israel and Greece, archaic Homo sapiens took ground only to fall back against Neanderthal counteroffensives.” It took our ancestors some 75,000 years to achieve the extinction of Neanderthals from what is now Israel and Greece.

No one is sure why early modern humans were ultimately able to prevail against their sister species. The Daily Express quotes Longrich as stating that “It’s possible the invention of superior ranged weapons – bows, spear-throwers, throwing clubs – let lightly-built Homo sapiens harass the stocky Neanderthals from a distance using hit-and-run tactics.” Over time, we evolved and acquired advantages that, eventually, resulted in the extinction of Neanderthals.

However, it is also possible that our ancestors used better hunting techniques and had other strategic advantages. Our early hunting groups may have been bigger than those of the Neanderthals. And with more fighters, humans may have had an advantage.

The theory that our ancestors eventually overcame the Neanderthals through violence, seems to support the view that they disappeared because they were exterminated by H. sapiens. However, there are also other theories to explain the extinction of Neanderthals, including disease, failure to adapt to changing environments and even a lack of genetic diversity.

Top image: Neanderthal warrior            Source: Gorodenkoff / Adobe Stock

By Ed Whelan



War and violence may not be modern phenomena, but the notions of race and biological species are. How conscious were Neanderthal and Cro-magnon that they were different species? Probably they weren’t. Both species lived in small groups, sometimes fighting against other groups, sometimes cooperating, no matter of which “species” they were. For sapiens another group of sapiens was as alien as a neanderthal one. So writing that Neanderthal and Humans were at war for 100’000 years, as if both were unified nations, is misleading. There were myriads of sporadic and unplanned micro-wars between small groups (intra- and inter-species) during 100’000 years, with Neanderthal groups gradually losing.

After reading the article I watched the accompaning youtube video & another linked video & came away with a few thoughts.  I agree that there were probably some confrontations  both tense & violent between tribes of Neanderthals & Cro-Magnons (I guess nobody uses that term anymore). But there were also conflicts between groups of the same kind.  From what I read & viewed the competetion beween the two Hominids was more of a race to who would better survive & thrive in the same enviorment.  The Neanderthals lost not so much because they didn’t develope significant populations to counter the Cro-Magnons; they also probably weren't as adaptable or as innovative as their ‘cousins’. And also an interesting point was made in one of the videos; Cro-Magnons had a highly effective ally: tamed wolfs/dogs. To para-phrase one commentator on evolution; you don't have to Fail a Lot, Just not Succeed as Much.  Modern humans have Neanderthal genes probably because the remnants of the ‘losers’ of this competition (the Neaderthals) went over & joined the ‘winners’ (Cro-Magnons). Neanderthals may have been “losers” but they weren't Loners.

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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