Did Ancient Humans Ever Go to War With Neanderthals?

Pop culture has long depicted Neanderthals as club-wielding brutes who regularly battled our ancestors. But scientists studying the fossil record have unraveled a much more nuanced relationship.

By Jack Knudson
Dec 21, 2023 4:00 PM
Cave painting at Carricola
(Credit: Norbert Hentges/Getty Images)


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Humans have crossed paths on the battlefield for so long that war has become an intrinsic part of our species. But have we made enemies with our ancient ancestors, too? Going back to prehistoric times, Neanderthals — the now-extinct species that looked and acted quite similar to modern humans — would have been a fitting rival.

Still, researchers question how often they fought, or if they even fought at all. 

Is There Evidence of Humans Battling Neanderthals?

John Shea, a paleoanthropologist at Stony Brook University, says the case for consistent hostility between Neanderthals and humans is tough to make. Fossil evidence for face-to-face contact between them is slim, so whether they liked or despised each other probably varied, Shea says. 

Reacting with violence, while not an impossible outcome, would have likely been too costly for either group. A smarter idea would have been to simply ignore each other. 

“It’s a big, empty world back then. There’s not much to fight over,” Shea says. “Rather than, ‘Okay, let’s continue to murder those guys’, a wiser head might prevail and say ‘Hey, if we try and murder them and fail, they’re gonna murder us back. So why don’t we just move?’”

Read More: Did Neanderthals and Modern Humans Coexist

Has Pop Culture Skewed How We Think of Human-Neanderthal Relations?

Historically, human-Neanderthal relations have been framed in an unflattering light. Narratives defined by butchery and bloodshed gained traction when science fiction author H.G. Wells published his 1921 short story, “The Grisly Folk.” By modern standards, the story features a horrific representation of Neanderthals; Wells imagined them as subhuman creatures hellbent on hunting humans that were migrating into their territory.

Read More: Neanderthals Killed a Cave Lion 48,000 Years Ago, and Scientists Know How

Interestingly, author William Golding flipped the script more than 30 years later with his 1955 novel, The Inheritors, which came out a year after Lord of the Flies, his acclaimed debut novel. The Inheritors follows a group of Neanderthals who become victims, rather than the perpetrators, of invading humans’ violence. 

The assumption that these groups regularly massacred each other has fallen out of favor, however. Decades ago, researchers theorized that humans played a direct role in the extinction of Neanderthals approximately 40,000 years ago, killing them as they moved into Europe and Asia.

No concrete fossil evidence of this supposed “conquest” has ever appeared, and so researchers have instead turned to other explanations like climate change or population dynamics.

Read More: A Leading Theory Behind Neanderthal Extinction May Surprise You

Could Neanderthals and Humans Have Ever Waged War?

The notion of primitive conflict evokes Albert Einstein’s iconic quote warning that the use of atomic bombs could revert humans back to fighting wars with “sticks and stones.” It turns out that this vision of prehistoric conflict doesn’t exactly align with how Neanderthals and humans went about their business. 

Organized warfare dates back to the Neolithic Era, when humans settled down and introduced agriculture 12,000 years ago. Raids and massacres also existed around the Neolithic Era as early manifestations of warfare, but researchers are not so sure that these planned events occurred before Neanderthals went extinct around 40,000 years ago. 

Warfare is much like writing, Shea says. Humans have been capable of attaching meanings to symbols for millennia, yet people started writing only in the past 5,000 years due to the growth of cities and increased economic interactions among strangers. Similarly, warfare emerged in response to specific circumstances brought about by the formation of larger societies — tens of thousands of years after the extinction of Neanderthals. 

“Warfare is something that appears after evidence of territoriality [when] people have something invested in land like fields of wheat or rice paddies,” Shea says. In other words, humans and Neanderthals likely wouldn't have engaged in organized, large-scale warfare.

Read More: How Are Neanderthals Different From Humans?

Did Humans and Neanderthals Fight At All?

This doesn’t mean a human and a Neanderthal never clashed at some point. Before war, violent conflict came in the form of individual homicides. Neanderthal remains found at Shanidar Cave in present-day Iraq, for example, display the potential for interpersonal violence during the Paleolithic. 

Those remains showed that one of the Neanderthals who once resided in the cave had a puncture in its ribs, which may have been the result of either an accidental or purposeful stabbing. It could have also been inflicted with a long-range projectile like a throwing spear or dart.

Read More: Neanderthals Also Had Superior Toolmaking Abilities, Not Just Humans

If that were the case, the culprit was potentially a human: Ancient humans had an affinity for projectile weapons, most famously the bow and arrow. Not only that, but humans and Neanderthals overlapped living in this part of Asia at around the same time. Still, whether this was a homicide or an unlucky hunting mishap — and if a human was even involved — remains a mystery. 

Interpersonal violence, in some capacity, existed within human groups and within Neanderthal groups. A 2018 study of skeletal remains indicate similar levels of cranial trauma among both groups, though the results suggest head-bashing was not an extremely common occurrence. 

If there ever was a fight between a human and a Neanderthal, for the most part, the combatants would have been equally matched in terms of physical strength and mental acuity. However, the scales would likely have been tipped in favor of the human participant due to our proficiency with a bow. Neanderthals lacked the same projectile prowess, meaning a human could have kept his distance.

Read More: What Types of Tools Did Neanderthals Use and Develop?

How Did Neanderthals and Humans Interact?

It is impossible to know for certain what went through the minds of humans who saw Neanderthals after migrating out of Africa and into Europe and Asia around 60,000 and 80,000 years ago. Perhaps they were initially curious, yet reluctant to approach people who looked eerily similar to themselves.

Miraculously, connections likely did spark between humans and their newfound relatives. Potential overlaps of the two groups in Europe suggest that they would intermingle and share cultural knowledge, mostly becoming friends, not foes.

Some Neanderthals were likely assimilated into human groups; interbreeding also followed, which is why the average human outside of Africa currently carries about 2 percent of Neanderthal DNA. In that case, ancient humans sped up the extinction of Neanderthals not by annihilating them, but by reproducing with them.

Read More: Did Early Humans Interbreed? These Scientists Made a Map to Prove It

When people visualize Neanderthals and humans, camaraderie is not part of the picture. Instead, we usually envision barbaric cavemen slinging rocks at each other. But Shea notes that you never see depictions of them sitting down at a campfire, sharing food, and telling stories. After all, Neanderthals would have been capable of understanding and producing human speech, according to a study published in Nature Ecology and Evolution in 2021.

A common pitfall when trying to interpret prehistory, Shea says, is that people take what is important in their own lives today and project it onto the past. Although declaring war has long been a staple of human behavior, it doesn’t mean our prehistoric ancestors were constantly brandishing stick-and-stone weapons at each other.

Read More: Brutes and Brains: What We Know About Neanderthal Brain Size

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.