8 billion people: How different the world would look if Neanderthals prevailed

In evolutionary terms, the population skyrocketed in seconds. The news of reaching 8 billion now seems inexplicable when you think about our history.

For the last 99% of the million years of our existence, people rarely encountered other humans. There were only about 10,000 Neanderthals living at any given time. Today, there are about 800,000 people in the same niche that Neanderthals once occupied. Moreover, since humans live in social groups, the next closest Neanderthal group is likely to be more than 100 kilometers away. Finding a mate outside of your family was a challenge.

Neanderthals were more likely to stay in their family groups and were more wary of new people. If they had outlasted our species (A wise man), the population density is likely to be much lower. It’s hard to imagine them building cities, for example, since they were genetically predisposed to be less friendly with those outside their immediate family.

Based on estimates from the World Environment History Database and the United Nations.
Max Roser, CC BY-SA

The reasons for the dramatic population growth may lie in the early days of Homo sapiens over 100,000 years ago. Genetic and anatomical differences between us and extinct species such as Neanderthals made us more similar to domesticated animal species. Large herds of cows, for example, can better withstand the stress of living in a small space together than their wild ancestors who lived in small, far apart groups. These genetic differences changed our attitudes towards people outside our group. We have become more tolerant.

The similarities between modern humans and domesticated dogs, in contrast to ancient humans (here Neanderthals) and wild wolves.
Theofanopoulou C PLoS ONE 12 (10): e0185306, CC BY

as such A wise man They were more likely to interact with groups outside of their families, they created a more diverse genetic pool which reduced health issues. Neanderthals at El Sidrón in Spain showed 17 genetic abnormalities in just 13 people, for example. Such mutations were virtually non-existent in later populations of our species.

But an increase in population also increases the spread of disease. Neanderthals may have typically lived shorter lives than modern humans, but their relative isolation would protect them from the infectious diseases that sometimes wiped out entire populations. A wise man.

Put more food on the table

Our species may also have 10%-20% faster reproductive rates than pre-human species. But having more children only increases the population if there is enough food for them.

Our genetic tendency for friendliness crystallized about 200,000 years ago. From this time on, there is archaeological evidence of the raw materials to make tools move around the landscape on a larger scale.

100,000 years ago, we created networks along which new types of hunting weapons and jewelry such as shell beads could spread. Ideas were shared widely and there were seasonal gatherings where A wise man They gathered for rituals and socializing. People had friends to rely on in various groups when they were short on food.

We may also have needed more emotional contact and new types of relationships outside of our human social worlds. In an alternate universe where Neanderthals thrived, it might be unlikely that humans could have established relationships with animals through domestication.

Radical changes in the environment

Things might also have been different if environments had not generated so many sudden deficiencies, such as drastic declines in flora and fauna, on so many occasions. If it weren’t for these serendipitous changes, Neanderthals might have survived.

Sharing resources and ideas between groups has allowed people to live more efficiently off Earth, by distributing more efficient technologies and giving each other food in times of crisis. This may have been one of the main reasons why our species thrived when the climate changed while others died out. A wise man They were better adapted to the changing and perilous weather conditions. This is in part because our species can rely on networks in times of crisis.

During the height of the last ice age about 20,000 years ago, temperatures across Europe were 8-10 degrees Celsius lower than today, and temperatures in Germany were more like northern Siberia now. Most of northern Europe is covered in ice for six to nine months of the year.

Social connections provided the means by which inventions could spread between groups to help us adapt. These included spear throwers to make hunting more efficient, fine needles to make appropriate clothing and keep people warm, stocking food, and hunting with domesticated wolves. As a result, more people escaped from nature’s wheel of fortune.

A wise man They were generally careful not to overconsume resources such as deer or fish, and were likely more aware of their life cycles than pre-human species. For example, people in British Columbia, Canada, only take in males when they fish for salmon.

However, in some cases, these lifestyles were hard to see. During the last ice age, animals like mammoths, which roamed vast lands invisible to human groups, became extinct. There are over a hundred pictures of mammoths in Rouvignac, France, dating back to the time of their disappearance, indicating the people’s grief over this loss. But it is likely that the mammoth would have survived had it not been for the rise of the mammoth A wise manbecause there would have been fewer Neanderthals to hunt.

Depiction of a mammoth in the Cave of Ruffignac, France.
Wikimedia Commons

Too clever for our own good

Our liking for each other’s company and the way we spend time together enhances our creativity was a creation of our species. But it came at a price.

The more human technology develops, the more harmful its use will be to the planet. Intensive farming depletes the nutrients in our soils, overfishing ravages our seas, and the greenhouse gases we release when we produce the products we now depend on are driving extreme weather. Overexploitation was not inevitable but our species was the first to do so.

We can hope that visible evidence of the devastation in our natural world will change our attitudes in time. We’ve changed quickly when we needed to throughout our history. After all, there is no Planet B. But if Neanderthals survived instead of us, we would never need a single planet.

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