Neanderthals are a continuous source of fascination due to how closely related they are to Homo sapiens. But were they as aggressive as us?
It is difficult to answer with certainty how aggressive Neanderthals were due to an absence of observational records, yet they were likely as aggressive as humans. Neanderthal bodies have been discovered with violent injuries that may have killed them as a result of possible aggression.
To find out more about Neanderthals and theories about their level of aggression, read on.
While it is impossible to definitively say that Neanderthals were aggressive, and one can assume that there would have been differences in personality traits as there are between humans and other primates, there are many pieces of evidence that point towards Neanderthals having similar levels of aggression to Homo sapiens.
To begin with, Neanderthals are known to have been skilled hunters who crafted weapons like spears to take down their prey. Aggression can be useful for predators, evolutionarily speaking, as it encourages them to take down their prey and then be able to protect it.
It is no stretch of the imagination to consider that they could have used these very same weapons and instincts to fight over other matters, such as conflicts over food, territory, mates, children, dominance, or perceived slights.
Indeed, aggression is an incredibly old impulse in primates and one shared by virtually all of them to different extents. Chimpanzees, for example, are well known for their aggression and routinely hunt and kill other animals and even other chimpanzees to seek dominance over them and perhaps even for sport.
Chimpanzees, however, are considered particularly aggressive and not all primates are like this.
Evidence of Neanderthal aggression also seems to have been found in archaeological records, such as Neanderthals with skull trauma indicative of violent death, broken arms possibly due to defending against violent blows, and even signs of being impaled by a spear.
While these could have been caused by possible hunting accidents, it does show the possibility of aggression and violent deaths as a result among Neanderthals. Neanderthals are known to have been very similar to humans in many ways, such as having a creative impulse, so it is not outside the realm of possibility that they could have shared the human destructive impulse.
It is not possible to know exactly how aggressive Neanderthals were, and there would likely have been differences between them, but they certainly could have been as aggressive as humans. Neanderthals also had high levels of testosterone, perhaps increasing their levels of aggression and sense of competition.
As mentioned previously, other primates like chimpanzees display high levels of aggression and are known to form communities that fight against each other. This was famously observed in the so-called Gombe Chimpanzee War from 1974 to 1978 when several chimpanzees splintered from a larger group.
Neanderthals may have engaged in such warlike behavior between communities and could have entered into such conflicts when modern humans first moved out of Africa into Eurasia around 180,000 years ago, while Neanderthals had been in these areas much longer.
Some believe that when modern humans encountered Neanderthals, they would have likely fought over territory rather than learning to share if human nature is anything to go by.
These conflicts and the eventual human conquest of Neanderthal land lasted for a period of around 150,000 years, which would have been a very long time indeed if Neanderthals were pacifists and allowed humans to take dominance.
There is also evidence in Israel and Greece of Homo sapiens and Neanderthal territory moving back and forth like a battle line before conquest in the region around 125,000 years ago. However, it is impossible to know for sure and there could be other reasons for this not related to aggression and conflict.
Neanderthals may have been willing to engage in conflict and fight over resources and dominance, but this does not mean they were necessarily particularly aggressive or any more aggressive than humans.
They are known to have worked well in team units when hunting, developing tight-knit communities that lived together. Instead of just eating the spoils of their hunts where they killed their prey, they took the food back to their communities, presumably to be shared with dependents.
They are known to have built homes, both in caves and using other materials, with hearths used to cook food, showing that they worked together to share resources in a way that humans and other primates like bonobos do.
Neanderthals also developed cultures, marked by a sense of creativity, perhaps providing contrast to their sometimes-destructive nature. In short, Neanderthals seem to have been complex creatures that, like modern humans, could be aggressive or peaceful depending on the situation.