Neanderthals were as Smart as Early Humans, Say Scientists

In a new review of recent studies on Neanderthals, anthropologists have found that complex interbreeding and assimilation may have been responsible for Neanderthal disappearance about 40,000 years ago, not the superiority of their human contemporaries.

Neanderthal. Image credit: Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

Neanderthal. Image credit: Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) lived in a large swath of Europe and Asia between about 350,000 and 40,000 years ago. They disappeared after anatomically modern humans crossed into Europe from Africa.

In the past, some anthropologists have tried to explain the demise of Neanderthals by suggesting that they were less advanced than their modern human contemporaries in many ways, including in their ability to hunt, communicate and adapt to different environments.

But the new paper, published today in the open-access journal PLoS ONE, does not support this hypothesis.

“The evidence for cognitive inferiority is simply not there. What we are saying is that the conventional view of Neanderthals is not true,” said Dr Paola Villa from the University of Colorado at Boulder Villa, who is the first author on the paper.

Evidence from multiple sites in Europe suggests that Neanderthals hunted as a group, using the landscape to aid them.

Neanderthals likely herded hundreds of bison to their death by steering them into a sinkhole in southwestern France. At another site used by Neanderthals, fossilized remains of 18 mammoths and 5 woolly rhinoceroses were discovered at the base of a deep ravine.

“These findings imply that Neanderthals could plan ahead, communicate as a group and make efficient use of their surroundings,” the anthropologists said.

Other evidence provides reason to believe that Neanderthals did in fact have a diverse diet.

Microfossils found in Neanderthal teeth and food remains left behind at cooking sites indicate that they may have eaten wild peas, acorns, pistachios, grass seeds, wild olives, pine nuts and date palms depending on what was locally available.

“The past misrepresentation of Neanderthals’ cognitive ability may be linked to the tendency of researchers to compare Neanderthals, who lived in the Middle Paleolithic, to modern humans living during the more recent Upper Paleolithic period, when leaps in technology were being made.”

“Although many still search for a simple explanation and like to attribute the Neanderthal demise to a single factor, such as cognitive or technological inferiority, archaeology shows that there is no support for such interpretations.”

“But if Neanderthals were not technologically and cognitively disadvantaged, why didn’t they survive?”

Dr Villa and her co-author, Dr Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University in the Netherlands, argue that the real reason for Neanderthal extinction is likely complex, but they say some clues may be found in recent analyses of the Neanderthal genome over the last several years.

“These genomic studies suggest that anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals likely interbred and that the resulting male children may have had reduced fertility. Recent genomic studies also suggest that Neanderthals lived in small groups. All of these factors could have contributed to the decline of the Neanderthals, who were eventually swamped and assimilated by the increasing numbers of modern immigrants.”

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Villa P, Roebroeks W. 2014. Neandertal Demise: An Archaeological Analysis of the Modern Human Superiority Complex. PLoS ONE 9 (4): e96424; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0096424