Around 50,000 years ago modern humans arrived in Europe. There they encountered the Neanderthals: a gorilla-like super-predator 6 times as strong as the average human. These vicious neanderthals hunted humans almost to extinction (and raped human women, to add insult to injury); reducing our population to a scared tribe of just 50. This forced us to adapt; driving our cultural evolution to where it is today.
That’s the history of humanity proposed by the “Neanderthal Predation theory”. It sounds rather absurd. Well, spoilers for the rest of this post: it is absurd. This wacky idea was pointed out to me on EvoAnth’s Facebook page (which I’m now legally obligated to tell you to go like) but was originally concocted by Danny Vendramini and detailed in his book: Them + Us.
As such, the best (and likely most hilarious) aspects of the NPT are hidden on dead trees somewhere. Nevertheless, Danny’s promotional website provides enough information about the theory to reveal it has three central pillars:
- Neanderthals were more ape-like than human-like
- They hunted, ate and sometimes raped humans; pushing us to the brink of extinction.
- Human culture evolved in response to this.
Today we’re going to deal with that first pillar of the NPT: Neanderthals were ape-like super-predators. Their key ape-y traits include:
- Their body plan, with their head being in front of their body rather than on top,
- Their eyes which are large and slitted, since they were nocturnal predators,
- Their muscles, which were large, powerful and ape-like
- The absence of a human nose.
Also, if you look at Danny’s artwork they apparently also snarl all the time.
Lets deal with these ideas in order of sensibility.
Danny does raise a good point about Neanderthal eyes: they’re soft tissue, so don’t preserve. Did their eyes have whites like us, or were they mostly iris like an ape? We have no real way of knowing. What’s more, depending on how “human” you make the eyes can greatly influence our interpretation of reconstructions. An artist picking a more human eye could make it much easier for people to anthropomorphise the Neanderthals (or vice versa, in the case of Danny’s model).
However, whilst there is debate over just what Neanderthal eyes looked like there is not enough evidence to indicate their large eyes evolved to help them hunt at night. This is because they were already doing something else that would have necessitated large eyes: living in the north. The reduced sunlight during the winter forces many species to evolve larger eyes. In fact, modern humans native to higher latitudes have larger eyes than those living further south!
Whilst this doesn’t rule out the idea Neanderthals were nocturnal hunters, it does mean Danny needs to provide extra evidence that they were; and these large eyes weren’t evolving for something else we know the Neanderthals encountered.
Much like the eyes, noses are soft tissue so we don’t really know what they looked like. However, we do know for sure that Neanderthals actually had one. The nasal bones at the base of their nose are prominent and upright; forming the foundation of an actual nose. Humans have the same setup, whilst the non-nosed apes don’t.
At this point you might be thinking that I was a bit unfair on the NPT by dismissing it so quickly as “absurd”. After all, all it’s done so far is re-interpret soft tissue. And we don’t know what that actually looked like. However, the muscles are where the NPT jumps the shark, and it’s all down hill from here.
Danny draws parallels between Neanderthal and gorilla musculature, which is particularly problematic when it comes to their hands. Ape arm muscles are very robust, adapted for climbing and walking. Humans have weaker arms, but our muscles have evolved for fine motor control. As a result of this, whilst apes are smart enough to make stone tools they’re really bad at it.
Fortunately for Danny, it’s not like there’s any evidence of Neanderthals making stone tools.
The other issue with having as much muscle as Danny claims is the sheer amount of energy needed to sustain it. Even the weakling Neanderthals palaeoanthropologists believe actually existed had so much extra muscle that some argued they died from lack of food. The bodybuilding Neanderthals proposed by the NPT would’ve had an even tougher time finding enough food; even if they were a super predator.
So things are starting to seem ridiculous and it isn’t looking good for the NPT. However, it’s the new posture Danny gives the Neanderthals that’s really the final nail in the coffin. Continuing along the “they were more ape-like” line of reasoning, Danny suggests they had a much more ape-like posture, with the head being more anteriorily (aka forwardly) positioned.
The issue with this reconstruction is the foramen magnum, bane of psuedoscientists everywhere. This is the hole on the base of the skull that the spinal cord enters the brain. And we certainly know that it was on the base of the Neanderthal skull, angled straight down. In other words, the Neanderthal spine should be coming straight out the front of the neck in Danny’s reconstruction above.
I’m not sure there’s really much to add here. The idea is wrong on almost every point.
Really, the take home message from all this should be to send me more stuff on Facebook, because I found this all very hilarious. I hope you did too; and if there’s enough positive feedback maybe we’ll deal with the other pillars of the NPT in the future.