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Did we kill all the other species of human ?


Posted on Monday, 25 November, 2019 | Comment icon 10 comments

We came, we saw and we wiped them out. Image Credit: CC BY-SA 4.0 Brett Eloff
Around 300,000 years ago there were at least nine species of human on Earth, but now there is only one.
Nick Longrich, a senior lecturer of palaeontology and evolutionary biology at the University of Bath, explores the uncomfortable truth that we were just as deadly in the past as we are now.


Nine human species walked the Earth 300,000 years ago. Now there is just one. The Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis, were stocky hunters adapted to Europe's cold steppes.

The related Denisovans inhabited Asia, while the more primitive Homo erectus lived in Indonesia, and Homo rhodesiensis in central Africa.

Several short, small-brained species survived alongside them: Homo naledi in South Africa, Homo luzonensis in the Philippines, Homo floresiensis ("hobbits") in Indonesia, and the mysterious Red Deer Cave People in China.

Given how quickly we're discovering new species, more are likely waiting to be found.

By 10,000 years ago, they were all gone. The disappearance of these other species resembles a mass extinction. But there's no obvious environmental catastrophe - volcanic eruptions, climate change, asteroid impact - driving it.

Instead, the extinctions' timing suggests they were caused by the spread of a new species, evolving 260,000-350,000 years ago in Southern Africa: Homo sapiens.

The spread of modern humans out of Africa has caused a sixth mass extinction, a greater than 40,000-year event extending from the disappearance of Ice Age mammals to the destruction of rainforests by civilisation today. But were other humans the first casualties?

We are a uniquely dangerous species. We hunted wooly mammoths, ground sloths and moas to extinction. We destroyed plains and forests for farming, modifying over half the planet's land area. We altered the planet's climate. But we are most dangerous to other human populations, because we compete for resources and land.

History is full of examples of people warring, displacing and wiping out other groups over territory, from Rome's destruction of Carthage, to the American conquest of the West and the British colonisation of Australia.

Like language or tool use, a capacity for and tendency to engage in genocide is arguably an intrinsic, instinctive part of human nature. There's little reason to think that early Homo sapiens were less territorial, less violent, less intolerant - less human.

Optimists have painted early hunter-gatherers as peaceful, noble savages, and have argued that our culture, not our nature, creates violence. But field studies, historical accounts, and archaeology all show that war in primitive cultures was intense, pervasive and lethal.

Neolithic weapons such as clubs, spears, axes and bows, combined with guerrilla tactics like raids and ambushes, were devastatingly effective. Violence was the leading cause of death among men in these societies, and wars saw higher casualty levels per person than World Wars I and II.

Old bones and artefacts show this violence is ancient. The 9,000-year-old Kennewick Man, from North America, has a spear point embedded in his pelvis. The 10,000-year-old Nataruk site in Kenya documents the brutal massacre of at least 27 men, women, and children.

It's unlikely that the other human species were much more peaceful. The existence of cooperative violence in male chimps suggests that war predates the evolution of humans.

Neanderthal skeletons show patterns of trauma consistent with warfare. But sophisticated weapons likely gave Homo sapiens a military advantage. The arsenal of early Homo sapiens probably included projectile weapons like javelins and spear-throwers, throwing sticks and clubs.
Complex tools and culture would also have helped us efficiently harvest a wider range of animals and plants, feeding larger tribes, and giving our species a strategic advantage in numbers.

The ultimate weapon

But cave paintings, carvings, and musical instruments hint at something far more dangerous: a sophisticated capacity for abstract thought and communication. The ability to cooperate, plan, strategise, manipulate and deceive may have been our ultimate weapon.

The incompleteness of the fossil record makes it hard to test these ideas. But in Europe, the only place with a relatively complete archaeological record, fossils show that within a few thousand years of our arrival, Neanderthals vanished.

Traces of Neanderthal DNA in some Eurasian people prove we didn't just replace them after they went extinct. We met, and we mated.

Elsewhere, DNA tells of other encounters with archaic humans. East Asian, Polynesian and Australian groups have DNA from Denisovans. DNA from another species, possibly Homo erectus, occurs in many Asian people. African genomes show traces of DNA from yet another archaic species. The fact that we interbred with these other species proves that they disappeared only after encountering us.

But why would our ancestors wipe out their relatives, causing a mass extinction - or, perhaps more accurately, a mass genocide?

The answer lies in population growth. Humans reproduce exponentially, like all species. Unchecked, we historically doubled our numbers every 25 years. And once humans became cooperative hunters, we had no predators.

Without predation controlling our numbers, and little family planning beyond delayed marriage and infanticide, populations grew to exploit the available resources.

Further growth, or food shortages caused by drought, harsh winters or overharvesting resources would inevitably lead tribes into conflict over food and foraging territory. Warfare became a check on population growth, perhaps the most important one.

Our elimination of other species probably wasn't a planned, coordinated effort of the sort practised by civilisations, but a war of attrition. The end result, however, was just as final. Raid by raid, ambush by ambush, valley by valley, modern humans would have worn down their enemies and taken their land.

Yet the extinction of Neanderthals, at least, took a long time - thousands of years. This was partly because early Homo sapiens lacked the advantages of later conquering civilisations: large numbers, supported by farming, and epidemic diseases like smallpox, flu, and measles that devastated their opponents.

But while Neanderthals lost the war, to hold on so long they must have fought and won many battles against us, suggesting a level of intelligence close to our own.

Today we look up at the stars and wonder if we're alone in the universe. In fantasy and science fiction, we wonder what it might be like to meet other intelligent species, like us, but not us. It's profoundly sad to think that we once did, and now, because of it, they're gone.

Nick Longrich, Senior Lecturer, Paleontology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Bath

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.The Conversation

Source: The Conversation | Comments (10)

Tags: Human

Recent comments on this story
Comment icon #1 Posted by RabidMongoose on 23 November, 2019, 15:45
There is no evidence of warfare between different human species.
Comment icon #2 Posted by Desertrat56 on 23 November, 2019, 16:23
23 and Me says all of us have Neanderthal DNA so we didn't wipe them out, we just integrated them.
Comment icon #3 Posted by Socio on 23 November, 2019, 23:55
I would expect not voluntarily. 
Comment icon #4 Posted by RabidMongoose on 24 November, 2019, 0:04
Looking in the mirror I highly suspect I have Homo Erectus DNA too never mind the 2% to 4% Neanderthal DNA.
Comment icon #5 Posted by Jon the frog on 25 November, 2019, 12:34
I think we are a mix-up of different ''species'' of hominids. The fittest survived in the end until we have discovered an economy based selection system. Now we are screwed...
Comment icon #6 Posted by Rolci on 25 November, 2019, 13:23
Of course we did, just look at our violent species, we are in the habit of killing our own. Ruled by greed, jealosy, anger, revenge, controlled by emotions decided by chemical reactions in the body. Evolution at its best. We kill everything we touch, beginning with our own natural environment, all in the name if comfort because most people are too lazy to walk 50 yards to the nearest post office. And don't forget our "need" for entertainment - we need TV sets, consoles and all sorts of gadges built from the innards of Gaia that we have plundered her of based on the false premise that her resou... [More]
Comment icon #7 Posted by RabidMongoose on 25 November, 2019, 15:40
The skeletal evidence for warfare does not exist.
Comment icon #8 Posted by Stiff on 25 November, 2019, 15:43
This is pretty much my view. All the species which ever crossed paths I imagine also bred at some point. Whether by choice, or more than likely, this... There must have been a fair bit of rape from both species in a time where there was absolutely no law and order. I reckon it would've been pretty commonplace back then.   Pretty much sums up my thoughts exactly.
Comment icon #9 Posted by Almighty Evan on 25 November, 2019, 17:18
Perhaps not by first choice, but even now, closing time encourages some interesting volunteers. 
Comment icon #10 Posted by Harte on 25 November, 2019, 17:32
All humans (Homo) engaged in the same killing activity. It should be pointed out here that the article claims we killed the others off. If we hadn't, one of them would have killed US off. In other words, you're lamenting your own existence. The extinction of other species of humans was a natural outcome, as the article explains. Plus, it's likely that diseases were the primary factor in the outcome. Diseases could account for the VAST majority of the population losses that lead to extinctions. Harte


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