Could You Beat Up a Neanderthal?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Oct. 24 2012 4:07 PM

Who Would Win in a Fight: a Modern Human or a Neanderthal?

We beat them at evolution. But what about fisticuffs?

The skull of  the Homo Neanderthalensis known as La Ferrassie 1 from the La Ferrassie Rock Shelter, France.
The skull scientists in the U.K. used to create a life-size reconstruction of a Neanderthal

Photograph by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.

A team of archaeologists, paleoanthropologists, and paleoartists has created a more accurate Neanderthal reconstruction, based on a nearly complete skeleton discovered in France more than 100 years ago. The La Ferrassie Neanderthal man was short but stocky. If a modern man came nose-to-nose with a Neanderthal, could he take him in a fight?

Possibly. A Neanderthal would have a clear power advantage over his Homo sapiens opponent. Many of the Neanderthals archaeologists have recovered had Popeye forearms, possibly the result of a life spent stabbing wooly mammoths and straight-tusked elephants to death and dismantling their carcasses. Neanderthals also developed strong trapezius, deltoid, and tricep muscles by dragging 50 pounds of meat 30 miles home to their families. A Neanderthal had a wider pelvis and lower center of gravity than Homo sapiens, which would have made him a powerful grappler. That doesn’t mean, however, that we would be an easy kill for our extinct relative. Homo sapiens probably has a longer reach, on average, than Neanderthals did, and more stamina. Most importantly, we could deploy these advantages to maximum effect using our superior wits. It’s obviously speculative, but a modern man of above-average build would have an excellent chance of defeating a Neanderthal in hand-to-hand combat if he could keep his opponent at arm’s length, survive the initial onslaught, and wear him down.

The image of Neanderthal as a squat, chiseled brute is sometimes overstated. Based on the small number of known specimens, it appears that the males averaged 5 feet 5 inches tall, which is only 2 inches shorter than the average Chinese man today and 4 inches shorter than the average American man. Bone structures in many Neanderthal specimens suggest that their biceps were no larger than those of an average Homo sapiens, and some of the Neanderthals unearthed in the Middle East were as slender as modern humans. Neanderthals also had an intellectual side: They decorated their bodies with sparkly paint and sea shells, and some archaeologists think they even played a primitive flute. There was tremendous variation in the build and ferocity of Neanderthals, as there is among modern humans. The probable result of any interspecies scrap, therefore, would depend on the individual combatants involved.

Advertisement

It would also depend on training. There’s no telling how a reanimated Neanderthal would attack or defend himself in a fight against a Homo sapiens. A trained modern fighter would know exactly where to strike the Neanderthal for maximum damage, giving him a tremendous advantage. On the other hand, the human brain can work against us in combat. Many animals continue to struggle long after they are shot, for example, while humans tend to collapse immediately under the psychological stress of being wounded. When it comes to fighting for our lives, we are sometimes too smart for our own good.

Neanderthals are lightweights compared to some of our other evolutionary neighbors. You would not want to encounter Homo heidelbergensis on a deserted sidewalk. Some specimens were more than 7 feet tall with thick bones. They were also cannibalistic at times, which means they knew how to fight other archaic humans. Their brains were smaller than those of Neanderthal or Homo sapiens—that’s a tactical disadvantage, but they probably fought with an animalistic ferocity. Paranthropus boisei would also have been a terror in combat. Often described as a gorilla head on a human body, the creature had powerful jaws and enormous teeth, as well as well-developed back muscles.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks paleoartist Viktor Deak, author of the forthcoming book The Human Fabric: A Compendium of Hominid Gross Anatomy.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
Damned Spot
Sept. 30 2014 9:00 AM Now Stare. Don’t Stop. The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 30 2014 6:00 AM Drive-By Bounty Prudie advises a woman whose boyfriend demands she flash truckers on the highway.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath The Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.