Survival of the Fittest: How Homo Sapiens Outlasted Neanderthals to Become Modern-Day Humans

I recently watched a BBC documentary entitled Out of Africa, a five-part series chronicling the migration of Homo sapiens out of Africa and into Asia, Australia, Europe, and the Americas. Although all five parts were fascinating, I was particularly rapt by the arrival of Homo sapiens (modern humans) into Europe some 40,000 years ago after a 70,000 year trek out of Africa, only to discover that Neanderthals, a proto-human and distant cousin had arrived some 100,000 years earlier. Neanderthals were a heartier, huskier species than Homo Sapiens, had a larger brain and more advanced technology, and had long since adapted to harsh European winters. However, 20,000 years or so later, Neanderthals had died out — completely. To this day, no Neanderthal genetic markers have been found in modern humans. 

How is it possible that a physically more powerful, better environmentally adapted, and technologically more advanced proto-human did not survive, while Homo sapiens, the weaker, less advanced interloper, not only survived but burgeoned to eventually populate the entire globe and create the marvelously modern societies of today?

Paleoanthropologists hot on the Homo sapien trail out of Africa have discovered in Europe a marked difference between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals: Homo sapiens may not have produced better weapons and tools, at least then, but they did make a quantum leap to produce art. They carved, pottered, sculpted, painted, and even made musical instruments, all with an eye on style rather than just making meaningless pretty. More importantly, their art embodied and transmitted — as art does — their identity, spirituality, and, their strong affinity for community.

Early Homo sapien art strongly suggests that our predecessors engaged in an intellectual endeavor to create a unique and dynamic culture and to communicate that culture through art. Homo sapien civilization, it seems, was predicated on the notion that life must be more than just survival, and that working together to survive allowed room for higher pursuit. Conversely, there is no evidence of this intellectual “artsy” undertaking among Neanderthals, who seem to have clung to a strictly utilitarian life for survival, which, ironically, led to their extinction when Europe became encased in 13 feet of ice.

Because Homo sapiens had cultivated a common cultural bond and strong communal ties, they were able to come together and huddle together, literally and figuratively, and, although large numbers perished during the Ice Age, enough adapted to a starkly altered environment and survived to carry on to become “us.” Neanderthals, on the other hand, were literally and figuratively left out in the cold — to perish everlastingly.

The inevitable machinations of evolution are tied up in minute and initially imperceptible changes over vast stretches in time to produce an optimum species. Our ancient ancestors, Homo sapiens, and their distant cousins, Neanderthals, hardly understood the long-term repercussions of their actions because they did not have the benefit of eons and eons of the recorded “heart and mind” of humankind nor the technology to access it. They could not look back thousands, hundreds of thousands, and millions of years and make decisions about their survival and their future based on that knowledge. But we can — and like it or not, we are a global community and our well-being and survival will likely depend upon our ability to indiscriminately come together and “huddle” together against adversity.  

But make no mistake about it, whatever path humankind chooses, evolution will be our judge about whether or not we chose wisely.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons