It’s been 40,000 years since the last Neanderthals walked the Earth, yet scientists are still trying to figure out who or what finished off the ancient hominid species. One of the more obvious possibilities is that modern humans massacred their Eurasian relatives, and the author of a new book suggests that our uniquely genocidal nature made such an outcome inevitable.
Criminology expert Dr Yarin Eski from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam argues that “genocidal violence and mass exploitation are perhaps the defining characteristics of being human,” and explains how our talent for murder not only put paid to the Neanderthals, but has colored all of human history.
Regarding our role in the destruction of our extinct cousins, Eski notes that there are several possible mechanisms by which we may have helped wipe out the Neanderthals. One such hypothesis holds that when modern humans arrived in Eurasia from Africa, they brought with them diseases to which the local hominid populations had no immunity.
Another theory states that our superior weapons and hunting strategies allowed us to monopolize food sources, causing our less capable relatives to die of starvation. More recently, it has been suggested that the Neanderthals didn’t die out, but were simply bred out of existence as they mated with modern humans.
However, while the idea of being shagged to extinction may be the dream way to go, Eski suggests that the Neanderthals probably weren’t so lucky. Analyzing the criminal tendencies of the human psyche and highlighting the role this has played in world history, he proposes that our advanced cognitive capacity – and particularly our ability to imaginatively “dehumanize” others – is what has led us to become the dominant species on the planet.
“To achieve total annihilation and commit genocide, we often need to dehumanise the other human being by imagining them as non-human, which allows us to distance ourselves from their likeness,” he writes. “Paradoxically, it is uniquely human to imagine other human beings as non-human; it is uniquely human to dehumanise.”
Citing examples from Ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire, the European colonization of Asia and the Americas, and finally Nazi Germany, he forges the argument that “total annihilation and exploitation through genocide and colonisation are specifically characteristic of the human species.”
Combining our singularly homicidal cognition with our murderous track record, Eski concludes that “the Neanderthal extinction should be acknowledged as a genocide, strengthening the idea that 'the human heritage – and the propagation of itself as a thing of value – has occurred on the back of seemingly endless acts of violence, destruction, killing and genocide'.”
So don’t mess, yeah?
The analysis appears in a chapter in the book A Criminology of the Human Species.