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

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

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

  • Another view of the thing which substitutes the notion of ‘splash saltations’ for punk-eek both generally and in the case of Vendramini’s thesis wrt Cro Magnons:
    Vendramini’s reconstructions of Neanderthals are totally believable; they explain the huge eyes and nasal area as well as the fact that in the myriad Neanderthal toolkits and tools nobody has ever found a needle. Creatures with 6″ – 8″ ice-age fur coats don’t require clothing or needles.
    It’s the claim of gracile hominids punk-eeking their way to Cro Magnonhood which doesn’t work and, again, the website I note explains all that.

  • Your patience in responding to the comments (on sciblogs) regarding this absurd hypothesis was incredible. I commend you and thank you for gracing us with your informed perspective. Best of luck in all your endeavors!

  • The claims in tis book are not that ridiculous, particularly the claims of rape and abduction as they are synonymous with the hominid (bigfoot, yeti) myths of North America and Asia. What the author tried to present was a theory of WHY home sapiens are so radically different from all their cousins. When one looks at Neanderthal skeletons instead of just museum reconstructions they are radically different from modern humans. Based on the robustness of their frames their musculature must have been absolutely terrifying to our weaker, leaner ancestors.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    That the claims are synonymous with myth doesn’t make them any less ridiculous.
    Neanderthal skeletons are not ‘radically different’ from those of modern humans. More roubust, yes; radically different, no. The major differences lie in the structure of cranium & face & even then, they aren’t ‘radical’.
    Nor does that excuse any of Vendramini’s wild speculations about appearance & behaviour: the brutish faces, the thick hair, the vertical pupils, & the rest of it.

  • herr doktor bimler says:

    It’s the claim of gracile hominids punk-eeking their way to Cro Magnonhood which doesn’t work and, again, the website I note explains all that.
    This is a profoundly silly argument. If we need to invoke “predation by carnivorous Neandertals” to explain why anatomically-modern humans evolved from earlier hominids — because they could never have evolved otherwise — then we are then left wondering how those carnivorous Neandertals evolved from earlier hominids.
    Conversely, if gracile hominids could “punk-eek” their way to Neandertalhood — who had to come from somewhere! — then there is no reason why Cro-Magnons couldn’t have done the same.

  • If tantalising evidence means lousy applying of laws of thermodynamics in a pseudo science manner coupled with no archaeological evidence whatsoever, then I think it’s time to redefine what exactly ‘tantalising evidence’ means. Is this how science is done in the Antipodes?

  • The logic in the article rests on the assumption that Neanderthals in 500,000 years of separate evolution in an extremely cold climate evolved to conform to the hairless state of modern humans. Did they also prefer females who waxed?
    The recent evolution of body lice, which reside in clothes indicates we only have used clothes in the last 100,000 years. (Kittler et el 2003, current Biology. )
    As for the volume of meat required, an insulated (hairy) Neanderthal with great senses of sight and smell, using shadows for cover equiped with a massive stabbing spear would be a formidable nocturnal ambush predator. The large ocular orbits and nasal cavity indicate this was plausible.
    One large animal per clan every 7 weeks would not seem too much of a challenge.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    The fact that sapiens didn’t develop their own species of body lice until around 100,000 years ago doesn’t tell us anything about what neanderthalensis may or may not have worn – & I’ve referenced a paper suggesting that yes, they too were constructing clothes. In addition, as I pointed out in my post, 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.
    Not quite sure why you are talking about volumes of meat as I have noted that Neandertals are known to have been very successful hunters of large animals.

  • The defining characteristic of obligate carnivores is empathy.
    A carnivorous Neanderthal would have been more catlike in behaviour, not brutish.
    Carnivores have more time for grooming therefore were probably sleeker that their hominid prey.
    Does your cat snarl all the time? Of cause not.
    Do cats hate mice? Again, no. They think that mice are the cutest things.
    Neanderthal would have played with his food, just like a cat.
    The haplogroup I1a has ledgends of the Jötnar who fit the description of Neanderthal perfectly.
    Both þor and Odin had Jötun wives. They were considered beautiful.
    I stopped reading when I got to the homily ” Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. ”
    Extraordinary claims require evidence. Period.
    Just like any claim.
    The extraordinary claim is a false argument, as incredulity is not an argument.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    The defining characteristic of obligate carnivores is empathy. This one requires a citation!
    A carnivorous Neanderthal would have been more catlike in behaviour, not brutish. Oh please! There is zero evidence to support this contention.
    The haplogroup I1a has ledgends of the Jötnar who fit the description of Neanderthal perfectly. Both þor and Odin had Jötun wives. They were considered beautiful. They may fit Vendramini’s overwrought imagination perfectly. Sadly, his reconstructions don’t match anything developed by actual science.
    I stopped reading when I got to the homily ” Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. ” Rubbish. Extraordinary claims require evidence. Period. Just like any claim. The extraordinary claim is a false argument, as incredulity is not an argument.
    Logic fail. Vendramini’s claims are indeed extraordinary, given that they fly in the face of all that palaeontology and genetics tell us about the Neandertals. This is a statement of fact, not an argument from incredulity. Because his claims are so extraordinary, if he’s to overthrow the scientific consensus he really does have to provide extraordinary evidence. Although I must say, any robust evidence at all would help his case. This does not include Norse legends or imaginative ‘reconstructions’.

  • HybridsSleeperCells says:

    Art, artifacts and literature of the past speaks to us in ways that mankind cannot. This allows for truth, without manipulation so some can feel good about themselves. Over the last 500-years… stories have been re-written into what people today are deem fairy-tales paints a clear picture of the societies and the acceptable nature of the beast that is alive within many of us.

    There is no denying the culture of cannibalism, raping and eating children as a lifestyle… when we look at the very old laws which still exist today in many of the old Caucasian cultures in the world where the Neanderthals were the strongest, there is over-whelming support for this theory. A theory that I embarked upon over 40-years ago in my own research into Europe culture. Discovered are far to many to count the number of children and woman remains with teeth imprints to ignore extreme cannibalism. In fact, bold enough to state this was the main diet.

    Ever wonder where the term Bloody, which is used more than any other word in the old English culture? Blood sausage, a national food in Britain…which was once always using human blood, and some still use the same today. Selling your human remains to a cannibals for consumption is still legal in several European countries. I can go on…to a tune of a 1000, plus page outline, but I’ll just park this here.


    • I can’t help feeling that your hypothesis would gain more credence if you were to publish your findings via the usual academic route, thus subjecting them to peer review.

      As I’m sure you’re aware, the etymology of the term “bloody” is quite interesting (as the history of words often is). However, “bloody” has been used as a means of intensifying a statement only since the mid-1700s (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bloody) . So it’s something of a stretch to suggest that it reflects a deep cannibalistic past.

      The frequency & function of cannibalism in humans remain open to interpretation. One interpretation is, of course, yours, but there are others (eg https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/apr/06/prehistoric-cannibalism-not-just-driven-by-hunger-study-reveals).

      None of which, of course, actually supports Vendramini’s outlandish claims.

  • Love that I found this Theory end of 2018 and thought it is new.. than reading about this 2010 debunking and finding out comments are going to 2019.

    I’m fan of Neanderthal Predator Theory. Can someone clearly debunk this without throwing a biased opinion? I have too less knowledge and just reading into it.. guess I stay amateur on that field so god damn help me.

    • The (relatively sparse) comments do indeed run through to this year; it’s amazing how Vendramini’s minimal-science hypothesis continues to have legs.

      As I said in the post, there is no good scientific evidence in support of his hypothesis, and a lot of material stacked against it.

    • This theory is fantastic.
      Unfortunately, by answering the basic question about our creation, it would put many anthropologists out of business, if accepted.
      There is no missing link. There is no Lucy.
      It’s all about 50 big monkeys that refused to die.
      The bias need to debunk this theory is proof that’s scary. Wonder why.
      ps. I like it because it can link to the Genesis. Before Adam and Eve, there were no humans…. love it.

      • It’s not remotely clear what you’re intending to say here – except, perhaps, that you appear to be promoting a form of creationism (a belief system, rather than science).

  • Thank you for commenting on this book. I needed to know if the book was credible. The Acknowledgments section starts off by stating that the author is building on the bricks of others then goes on to name several well-respected scientists including Svante Paabo who authored Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes which I had just read. If I hadn’t been reassured by the Acknowledgments, I wouldn’t have made it through the Preface. The WTF factor peaked at the claim of a population size of 50 (coincidentally the smallest size of unrelated individuals needed to prevent inbreeding per Britannica.com). The premise isn’t even logical; the population evolved in the middle east, picking up Neanderthal DNA there, then spread throughout the world including back into Africa where magically the Neanderthal DNA disappeared. Even though the article on the decoding of the Neanderthal genome wasn’t published until early 2010 (edition of the book I’m reading was published in 2012) there were earlier articles on Neanderthal DNA so the author has no excuse. Not to mention that a cannibalistic diet would’ve caused the fatal Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (a variant of the bovine mad cow disease).

    • You’re quite right; Vendramini has no excuse for getting it so wrong on the issue of Neandertal DNA. Thanks for coming by to comment 🙂

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