First Peoples: Europe came and went. I watched it. In case you didn’t see it there was a big reveal: archaeologists in France have uncovered a site where modern humans were producing arrowheads 50,000 years ago. This is strange for two reasons. First, what were modern humans doing with bows and arrows 50,000 years ago? They emerged in the Paleolithic transition to the Mesolithic, spreading from the Old World to the New. That is, they become common over the last 10,000 years. I don’t recall the narrator addressing this issue at all. But let’s set that to the side: if these finds are associated with modern humans then that pushes their arrival to Western Europe 10,000 years further back. Despite all the arguments about dating the presence and disappearance of Neanderthals from Europe, no one presumes that they went extinct 50,000 years ago. That implies that groups of moderns interposed themselves into Neanderthal dominated Europe in some fashion for thousands of years, until finally the Aurignacian culture arrived and replaced Neanderthals in toto.
At the site in question specifically the researchers have uncovered evidence that moderns and Neanderthals used the same location only a few months apart. But we need to remember modern humans weren’t modern yet, they were just one of the many hominin lineages which have flourished over the past 2 million years. With hindsight we can see that these initial forays were to prefigure what was to come, but at the time the two groups were not quite that different in technology and guaranteed destiny. Modern humans did not have any great advantage, so they may have come and gone depending on the circumstances.
Perhaps the 50,000 year old moderns in France may be likened to the Norse in Newfoundland. And in fact the analogy to the European settlement of North America, and the replacement of Neanderthals by moderns, is made in First Peoples. But the devil is in the details, as the documentary is somewhat schizophrenic about the specific dynamic until the very end. The two extreme stylized models are “make war” vs. “make love.” With the very clear evidence that modern humans admixed with Neanderthals, the narrative arc of the documentary flips from one where moderns are depicted attacking a Neanderthal camp, to one where a modern human lothario engages in “inappropriate touching” with a Neanderthal female. Though I suppose this was 40,000 years before “affirmative consent” norms, so perhaps we should cut them some slack?
In any case, going back to the analogy with the New World I think we can acknowledge that there were complex scenarios left on the cutting room floor of a one hour documentary. The mestizo population of the New World arose through a variety of means, ranging from love all the way to rape. If modern humans 40,000 years ago were anything like modern humans today, then it seems likely that their interactions would run the gamut from trade and amicable relations, to extermination, with many permutations and positions between these two. We need pick one model as the story.
At the end of it all First Peoples: Europe tells the viewer that Neanderthals were demographically swamped out, rather than killed en masse (there weren’t enough for them to be a mass anyway!). This is an idea that’s been around for a while. With very small populations the idea is that a crest of demographic expansion out of Africa just swallowed up the Eurasian hominins. We literally mated them out of existence. John Hawks elaborates this model at length when he has screen time, which makes sense as he’s been suggesting that large effective population sizes within Africa over the Pleistocene might naturally result in the “out of Africa” pulses we see in the genetic record.
Finally, this episode does now make it crystal clear to me why the original admixture event of Neanderthals with modern humans in the Middle East left its imprint on modern Europeans, and later ones did not. Modern Europeans, whether their ancestry is “hunter-gatherer” or “farmer” descend from a Pleistocene Middle Eastern/Central Asian population in totality, and so only experienced that singular admixture event with Neanderthal Middle Easterners. More concretely, the Mesolithic populations which were overwhelmed and assimilated by farmers during the Neolithic in Europe were themselves descended from peoples who had issued out of the Middle East or Central Asia to replace the first modern Europeans. The Aurignacians (or if later, Solutreans) replaced probably had somewhat higher fractions of Neanderthal ancestry, being further out on the “wave of advance.” But since they left no descendants, to a first approximation there’s no signal of a Neanderthal cline.
The past 50,000 years have been characterized by two phenomena: extinction and admixture. The rest is commentary.