Did Homo sapiens really outcompete Neanderthals? Genetics is rewriting the story of human evolution

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Credit: Alamy
Credit: Alamy

Homo sapiens evolved in Africa around 300,000 years ago, and between 177,000 and 194,000 years ago they colonized what is now Israel, putting them into contact with Neanderthals for the first time. The genetic record suggests that limited interbreeding with Neanderthals occurred until the latter became extinct. 

But as [archaeologist Rebecca] Wragg Sykes says, the incontrovertible fact is that hybrid children were born and raised to survive. They must have been “fed, cleaned, kept warm; loved.”

The survival of hybrids suggests that Neanderthals and H. sapiens should be viewed as “allospecies”—that is, broadly similar species whose ranges abut rather than broadly overlap. 

Perhaps the most intractable misconception about the Neanderthals is that they were displaced by sapiens. Instead, it is now clear that they were replaced by a most remarkable population of stable hybrids. These new beings were soon painting in Chauvet Cave, creating some of the most brilliant art the world has ever known. And as suggested by pawprints from the same cave, they had begun an association with wolves—the earliest evidence of canine domestication. 

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Perhaps it’s inevitable that we’ll forever see Neanderthals as reflections of ourselves and our values. But the increasingly nuanced archaeological and genetic picture is granting us previously unimaginable insights into Neanderthal life. 

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