“killer neandertals” – does this one really stack up?

By Alison Campbell 31/10/2010 18

I spent yesterday up in Auckland, running a schol bio preparation day. (And thanks to Mike, Cindy, BEANZ & the Auckland Science Teachers Association) for setting it up.) I do enjoy these sessions (& hopefully the students do too!) as I like the interactions with students & they always ask nice, challenging questions.

Anyway, after we’d finished the main proceedings of the day, someone came up & asked if I’d heard of the ‘killer Neandertal’ hypothesis, & what did I think of it? Was it a good explanation for the evolution of modern humans? The quick answer was, no I hadn’t, so couldn’t really comment – but I’d go & have a look 🙂

I quickly found a website promoting a book by Danny Vendramini. Called Them and Us: how Neanderthal predation created modern humans, the book supposedly provides “new archaeological and genetic evidence to show [Neandertals] weren’t docile omnivores, but savage, cannibalistic carnivores…” – the ‘Neanderthal Predation theory’. (I noticed that the author uses the spelling ‘Neanderthal’ throughout – a bit surprising as the norm these days is to use ‘Neandertal’, after the correct German spelling for the river valley where the type specimen was found.) Given the lack of any real evidence, and of support for this from the wider scientific community, this position would be better described as an hypothesis…

The website goes on to claim that that

Eurasian Neanderthals hunted, killed and cannibalised early humans for 50,000 years in an area of the Middle East known as the Mediterranean Levant. Because the two species were sexually compatible, Eurasian Neanderthals also abducted and raped human females…. this prolonged period of cannibalistic and sexual predation began about 100,000 years ago and that by 50,000 years ago, the human population in the Levant was reduced to as few as 50 individuals.

The death toll from Neanderthal predation generated the selection pressure that transformed the tiny survivor population of early humans into modern humans. This Levantine group became the founding population of all humans living today.


These claims are accompanied by illustrations that make Neandertals appear more akin to gorillas than to modern humans, which is ‘interesting to say the least, given the recent information on genetic similarities between sapiensneandertalensis.  We’re told that the Neandertal Predation ‘theory’ “argues that, like modern nocturnal predators, Neanderthals had slit-shaped pupils to protect them from snow blindness” (thus conflating two ideas – not all nocturnal predators live in snow-covered lands – on the basis of zero evidence, since eyeballs don’t fossilise). And there’s also the statement that Neandertals “had thick body fur and flat primate faces to protect them against the lethal cold.”

Now, that last one is just ridiculous. As far as I know there have been no published findings of Neandertal fossils accompanied by evidence of thick body fur. On the other hand, there is tantalising evidence that they may have had the technology to make sewn garments, thus reducing any selection pressure favouring hirsuteness. In addition, Europe was definitely not in a state of constant glaciation during the few hundred thousand years that Neandertals lived there. During interglacial periods temperatures were fairly similar to what they are today – hardly conditions where a thick furry pelt would be selected for (let alone those slit-shaped pupils…).

As for the ‘flat primate faces’ – if you have a look at a gorilla skull you’ll see that the nasal opening is flush with the surface of the facial bones: gorillas do indeed have flat faces & no protruding nose. But a Neandertal skull, like that of a modern human, does have projecting nasal bones & so, by extension, a nose that juts out from the face. In fact, the whole central region of a Neandertal face projects further forward than ours, so it’s hard to see where Vendramini gets the idea of a ‘flat’ face from. He does provide an image of an Neandertal skull, superimposed onto a chimpanzee profile, & claims that the ‘perfect’ fit is evidence that neandertalensis “more closely resembled non-human primates than a modern humans”. What’s missing is any recognition that the skull is not in its ‘life’ position but presented at an angle that conveniently fits the point of view being espoused. If Neandertals really did hold their heads at this angle their posture would be distinctly odd, to say the least. Similar techniques were used by some illustrators in the 1800s to support the idea that African negroes were closer to the apes than to Europeans.

And the claims of rape and cannibalism are fairly extraordinary. As the late Carl Sagan said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. So let’s go back to some of those statements. How about the supposedly much-diminished group of Levantine humans becoming “the founding population of all humans living today”? How, exactly, does this fit with the fact that the sapiens populations of Africa were not exposed to supposed Neandertal predation? Or with the colonisation of Australia by Homo sapiens around 60-70,000 years ago?

Or the idea of frequent interspecies rape, of sapiens by neandertalensis? By the way, if all this – the brutish images & tales of rape – isn’t intended to demonise Neandertals, then I’m not sure what would. Frankly it smacks of the way this species was portrayed in the years immediately following its discovery, before palaeoanthropologists began to expose the details of its life – for example, a reconstruction by Frantisek Kupka, based on work by Marcellin Boule. Something of a dehumanising stereotype, in other words.

By the way, there’s an interesting paper by Julia Drell (2000: Neandertals: a history of interpretation) that looks at how portrayals of Neandertal have changed over time, as more evidence has become available – and also as societal attitudes have changed. (NB this may well not be open-access.) Drell also notes that suggestions of cannibalism by Neandertals aren’t new, first appearing in the 1860s. She cites an earlier author as saying that “there is no more universally common way of distancing oneself from other people than to call them cannibals.”

In fact, there’s not a lot of evidence of cannibalism in Neandertals –  the remains of about 15 individuals that may have been eaten by their conspecifics. And that over the total span of their existence. (I do wonder why they’d turn to cannibalism anyway, given that they were extremely successful hunters of large game going by the butchered remains associated with neandertalensis living sites.) There is no published evidence that supports the contention that Neandertals ever ate non-Neandertal hominins, let alone on the scale that Vendramini suggests. On the other hand, there is evidence of Neolithic sapiens eating each other.

Nor is there evidence of frequent interspecies rape in the gene pool of modern humans. Earlier this year Green et al announced the sequencing of the Neandertal genome, and the results of a comparison of this and the sapiens genome. Their data did suggest a small degree of interspecific hankypanky might have been going on, but not in large quantity. (The data did not support the idea that all modern humans are descended from a remnant human population in the Levant, as Them and Us would have it; Neandertal genes are notably absent from African populations. Nor does it support the idea of Neandertal predation, despite claims to the contrary on the book’s website.)

The Them and Us website also provides a link to a paper, Neanderthal predation and the bottleneck speciation of modern humans, for the ‘academically minded’. Strangely for an academic paper, the pdf contains no publication details (journal name, volume, & so on) & a Google Scholar search doesn’t throw up any published papers with that name. So it’s a fair bet that this has not been subject to the normal pre-publication process of peer review – something I would expect for an hypothesis that’s supposed to turn our understanding of human evolution on its head…

J.R.R.Drell (2000) Neanderthals: a histroy of interpretation. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 19(1): 1-24

18 Responses to ““killer neandertals” – does this one really stack up?”

  • I just don’t “get” why someone would continue with this Victorian theory, when recent evidence of neandertalensis and sapiens is so much more interesting and complex! It seems like someone who frankly, is tittilated by the idea of beastial ape-men raping and carrying off women, you know, Clan of the Cave Bear styles, or HG Well’s short story…
    As a redhead, I very much like the idea that I may carry Neandertal genes…. 🙂

  • Mmmm, I did wonder about the titillation angle myself. There’s one picture on the website that reminded me of the whole King Kong/Fay Wray thing 🙂

  • The recent National Geographic article talked about the red head gene in Neandertal, but I’m not sure if it was the same gene that red headed sapiens carry, suggesting interbreeding between the species (ooo, the tittilation again!!) or a Neandertal equivalent.
    I kind of like the idea that we might carry some of the genes of an extinct species of Homo (although I guess we do carry genetic fragments of all sorts of long gone organisms…)!

  • I don’t think you actually read the whole book, or comprehended many of the arguments. Regarding the Levantine, population, he says they are original Cro Magnons, the sapiens, based on changes in fossil evidence and using genetic markers. The remaining protohumans in other areas, along with the hominids like erectus, were wiped out by the expanding sapiens.

    Regarding rape, I don’t think he said it was an every day occurance, but enough to scare the proto-humans and make them fear it and develop sexual and physiological defenses to counter act it.

    In sum, I think many of your arguments are answered with a more perspicacious reading of the book.

    • I don’t think you actually read the whole book, or comprehended many of the arguments

      I beg to differ.

  • Alison, that “monsters” displaying Neanderthal traits(King Kong being a prime example) is one of the many common threats through is what sparked Mr Vendrimini on his research.
    Vendrimini argues that by acquiring and fixing the fear of such images the early humans were better able to survive the near extinction event and later kill neanderthals. Your observation is a confirmation of a central plant in NP theory – fixation of anti neanderthal behavioral adaptations throughout the human population.

    To other posts –

    We all do carry Neanderthal genes, red heads or not. Africans carry a smaller trace of neanderthal, but not none. They were the more similar hominids the early humans encountered onthe way out of the Levant, so a greater degree of inter-breeding and hence dilution of the neanderthal gene is to be expected.

    The genes are only those inherited from Male Neanderthals. Given most men will mate with anything in a skirt we can safely conclude that human males were simply not able to compete with Neanderthal males for Neanderthal females, but Neanderthal males were able to mate with human females. If you want to discount the possibility of rape being a factor, then you have to assume 5 million years of effective (but yes immoral for humans) primate sexual behavior was discarded by evolutionary factors in both carnivorous Neanderthals and omnivorous Humans simultaneously in different climates on different continents.

    Vendrimini makes a forensic analysis of the conclusions on neanderthals that have become fashionable as we in the west have embraced multiculturalism. And one by one disproves them. For example – without ice age appropriate clothing Neanderthals without hair could not have survived, and no evidence exists of neanderthals wearing ice age appropriate clothes – hence we should conclude they were hairy.

    Mr Vendrimini has attracted a lot of giggles from people who should know better, but has not been disproved – hence his theory stands.

    Example – Drell in this article postulates that “gorillas do indeed have flat faces & no protruding nose. But a Neandertal skull, like that of a modern human, does have projecting nasal bones & so, by extension, a nose that juts out from the face”

    Vendrimini, cautiously leaves the actual shape of the outside of the nose open to speculation, as many primates have large noses not evidenced by the skull shape. However, he argues convincingly that to house and protect a large olfactory organ – in ice age Europe as evidenced by the volume of the nasal cavity – neanderthals evolved a protruding snout. Therefore their faces did protrude further than ours, however this does not mean they had a protruding nose on the end of it. if fact such and adaptation in ices age Europe would have been maladaptive. Hence the combination of protruding snout AND minimally exposed flat nose is adaptive for a cold climate carnivore – go look at such animals today and you will see this combination.

    We need to consider what strong forces drove our adaptation from dumb hominid to sharp human in the levent 100-50 thousand years ago. An encounter with a predatory, sexually compatible sister (or perhaps wicked cousin) species would do the trick.


    • In answer to your comments:

      The comparison of Neandertal & sapiens genomes found that African populations did not have an admixture of Neandertal genes – a finding that supports the out-of-Africa hypothesis. Nor can it be said that the Neandertal genes found in some human populations came only from males. All it takes for a female’s mtDNA lineage to disappear is for that female to have only male children.

      There is good recent evidence that Neandertals were not solely carnivorous. Similarly there is evidence that Neandertals used tools to manufacture clothing (eg http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/species/homo-neanderthalensis) ie contrary to your assertion there is indeed evidence that Neandertals wore clothing. Vendramini’s claims that they were heavily haired (& by implication somewhat bestial) really don’t stack up.

      Neandertals did not have a protruding ‘snout’ (another term that carries animal-like connotatins). They had a somewhat prognathous face, but not a snout. They also had prominent nasal bones, a feature they share with sapiens & also the earlier erectus but not with the great apes. Any reconstruction that suggests the Neandertal nose was flat and thus ape-like is not supported by their facial anatomy. (The ‘cold climate carnivores’ you propose in support of Vendramini’s hypothesis are felids, not primates, so the comparison does not hold water.)

      Anatomically modern sapiens arose in Africa around 170,000 years ago, not 100,000 years ago in the Levant.

      I’m afraid Vendramine’s proposal remains only an hypothesis (not a theory), and a rather silly one at that.

  • “All it takes for a female’s mtDNA lineage to disappear is for that female to have only male children”. – highly unlikely I would have thought. Also unlikely that none of the female children lived to procreate. Much more likely that the apex carnivore called Neandethal just killed any human male silly enough to go near his band.

    There is actually precious little evidence to support Neanderthals with tools and flowers…. but it does fit with the modern western fashion of refusing to find fault with alien cultures. Getting hairy is a simpler solution to the cold, than finely sown undergarments and corresponding wind/waterproof outer garments of which no trace of the necessary, and presumably well cared for tools exists..

    Bestial, as in beast like hence ugly to us, is exactly the implication, Snout is a description is just trying to be precise, the animal implication is valid because it applies to pre-human species different to ours – neanderthals were animals as aur human ancestors were also animals – Humanity as we know it not existing at the time. That a hominid is somehow stuck with a protruding nose because we have one, whereas all other apes, and other cold climate predators have practical flat noses is a conclusion that is difficult to sustain. Look at the skulls the nasal cavity is clearly huge and protruding, and why else but to protect the olfactory organs?

    Anatomically modern humans clearly did not adopt modern culture until they went to the Levant – that meeting with the super predator neanderthals kicked in the evolutionary change to become real humans is as good a theory as anybody has come up with.

    Call it silly if that’s how modern academics deal with challenging and uncomfortable ideas.

  • A prognathous jaw =/= a snout. A snout is what one sees in eg wolves, snow leopards. There is no evidence of such a structure in Neanderthals or sapiens.

    Your statement about humans not becoming ‘fully modern’ only in the Levant conveniently ignores the fact that African populations developed on this trajectory but without that Levantine contact.

    Why, exactly, is are Vendramini’s supporters so set on demoniaing Neandertals?

  • Thanks Alison, there is no evidence of any structure of any particular shape – however why we would choose the very odd (for primates) human nose for all our models rather than a form better adapted for a cold climate apex predator (like a wolf, snow leopard) defies logic.

    Africans did develop in a similar direction, however evidence of the strategic suite of adaptations – behavioral mainly – that differentiate us from what they were does not appear in any sustained manner until after the encounter in the Levant.

    Describing a species likely appearance accurately according to the evidence following the logic of what features are adaptive vs maladaptive for their environment is not demonizing them.

    However your intuitive association of proposed “Neanderthal” features with “demons” is one of the observations supporting NP theory. The instinct to fear/hate/loath/persecute those with those features is an imprint from our ancestors encounters.


    • Um, as Grant’s pointed out, you misread me. Have another look at my question: why are Vendramini’s supporters so set on demonising Neandertals? Because claiming that they looked more like beasts than humans, in the face of evidence to the contrary, is doing just that.

      On the ‘snout’ issue – the only reason V can really push this one is something I mentioned in my original post on this topic: he presents the Neandertal skull in a position it would not have occupied in life, making the whole face protrude much further than would have been the case in living individuals. Nor does it negate the fact that their nasal bones clearly protrude beyond the plane of the face and are not part of a ‘snout’. And yes, I do know my anatomy.

  • Bazza,

    Perhaps you’re misreading – ?

    You wrote in reply to Alison “However your intuitive association of proposed “Neanderthal” features with “demons” […]”, where the ‘your would refer to Alison, but Alison wrote “[…] Vendramini’s supporters so set on demonia[t]ing Neandertals?”

  • 1) Vendrimini’s supporters – since I don’t know them I can’t speak for what motivates them. However I simply conclude that his NP theory describes the neanderthals, their likely behavior and the influence on our own evolution better than all the other theories. Propose a better theory if you wish.

    2) Describing as accurately as possible, respecting the information available may lead to what are to the modern person unpalatable conclusions about both Neanderthals and Early humans.

    3) Without assigning dispersions on the Neanderthals that they looked more like “beasts” that humans is highly probable. After all every one of the other mammal species on earth looks more like a “beast” than a human – why would Neanderthals be the exception. If you accept that Neanderthals looked more like humans than the multitude of hairy “beasts” then it is beholden on the proposers to offer proof, or at least a compelling reason why the cold weather apex predator who lived in the open without effective (any) clothing evolved in the same direction as us.

    4) This is not the same as setting out to “Demonise” either species. As scientists we have a responsibility to call the facts as we see them, not to gloss over or trim evidence to protect sensibilities.

    5). I note that progressive western people seem much more upset with the “demonising” of Neanderthals than Vendrimi’s treatment of our immediate human ancestors who he surmises applied a very crude violent form of artificial selection on his women folk, his children and anybody else in reach. Why is that?

    6) The Neanderthal skull I believe is presented by V as being on the individuals neck – slightly hunchbacked – and supported by huge neck muscles as the fossil evidence suggests. Please elaborate on your view of where it was positioned, most interested to learn.

    7) Yes, clearly, the whole face did protrude further forward than ours, those bits of protruding bone surrounding the enlarged olfactory as can be observed. Vs theory is that it was fronted by a flat nose (better than a bear stick-out easy-freeze nose for cold climates) and giving the Neanderthal an excellent sense of smell that other predators find useful. From the outside it would look more like a snout than a nose. You may know YOUR anatomy, however it’s the anatomy of a neanderthal adapted to the the apex predator in ice age Europe that is the issue.

    I will say it again, the association with “beastly” features in others with the negative, including demonic, connotations is universally a human trait. You, not I, made that link. Personally I think the Neanderthals behavior should not be “judged” by today’s standards any more than our early ancestors should be.

    That would merely get in the way of the search for truth.

    • One reason Neandertals are unlikely to have been ‘beasts’ is that they were a sister species to sapiens. You do seem to be operating from the position of modern humans being absolutely superior to all other species, including their nearest relatives.

      Neandertals did not ‘live in the open’ but are well-documented to have used caves and possible constructed shelters. There is also evidence, which It appears you are choosing to ignore, that they wore clothing. Certainly they were using tools that would have allowed them to prepare hides, pierce holes in them, & so on.

      Your point 5 is unclear.

      The fossil evidence emphatically does not show that Neandertals were hunchbacked or had ‘huge neck muscles’.The position of the foremen magnum & lack of nuchal crests or any substantial nuchal ridge clearly indicates that Neandertals stood as erect as we do, with the head balanced atop the spine in the same way that ours is. This is not just my view but that of all the researchers publishing in this area in mainstream journals. Vendramini’s presentation of the Neandertals skull in an unnatural position does not accurately reflect the fossil anatomy & in fact resembles the way Africans were represented in some of the old ‘great chain of being’ diagrams (with the same intention, of making them appear less human).

      Bears live in cold climates & have ‘stick-out noses’ (your phrase). So do wolves, arctic foxes, snow leopards & the like. In all cases the protruding muzzle is solidly underlaid by bone almost to the tip of the nose. This is NOT what we see in Neandertals, where the nasal bones jut out from the face in the same way that ours do. (It’s not just ‘my’ anatomy with which I am familiar.)

      • Thank you Alison. You are a wealth of information. I like how you use sound facts to descredit the interpretation of V. I am very interested in learning more about human origions and thanks to you I am even more interested. Thank you so very much.

    The overwhelming criticism of Vendramini’s theories demonstrate just how ingrained political correctness and the need for egalitarianism is in modern society and thinking. It’s not enough to dismiss the scientifically proven difference between human ethnic groups as “silly Victorian stereotypes”, but must we now apply that political correctness to non-humans as well ?

    The fact is, given the enormous morphological variation between modern human ethic groups, it’s absolutely absurd to think that Neanderthals, who had a blatantly different skeletal morphology, looked similar to modern humans. And no, as warm and fuzzy as one’s view nature may be, you can NOT dress one up and send him to Harvard, at least not without raising eyebrows (or brow ridges).

    Vendramini’s reconstruction, apart from the eyes which admittedly go too far, is probably the most scientifically accurate, given the Neanderthals environment and evidence that they hunted with jabbing spears requiring close proximity to their prey as opposed to hunting from a distance.

    And to those who ask why Vendramini theory supporters are intent on “demonizing” Neanderthals, one must ask, why are his theories detractors intent on humanizing them ? To protect their warm and fuzzy view of nature ? If one says a chimpanzee is an ape, is that “demonizing” them ?

    Once we free our minds of the modern need to be anthropomorphically correct, politically correct and the “nature is good” fallacy, we can see that his reconstruction is better than anything yet presented.

    • ‘a blatantly different skeletal morphology’ – oh please. The overwhelming criticism of his claims by the scientific community simply reflects the fact that they are blatantly incorrect.

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