Neanderthals were as smart as humans.

New Evidence Debunks ‘Stupid’ Neanderthal Myth

ScienceDaily (Aug. 26, 2008)

 — Research by UK and American scientists has struck another blow to the theory that Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) became extinct because they were less intelligent than our ancestors (Homo sapiens). The research team has shown that early stone tool technologies developed by our species, Homo sapiens, were no more efficient than those used by Neanderthals.

Published in the Journal of Human Evolution, their discovery debunks a textbook belief held by archaeologists for more than 60 years.

The team from the University of Exeter, Southern Methodist University, Texas State University, and the Think Computer Corporation, spent three years flintknapping (producing stone tools). They recreated stone tools known as ‘flakes,’ which were wider tools originally used by both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, and ‘blades,’ a narrower stone tool later adopted by Homo sapiens. Archaeologists often use the development of stone blades and their assumed efficiency as proof of Homo sapiens’ superior intellect. To test this, the team analysed the data to compare the number of tools produced, how much cutting-edge was created, the efficiency in consuming raw material and how long tools lasted.

Blades were first produced by Homo sapiens during their colonization of Europe from Africa approximately 40,000 years ago. This has traditionally been thought to be a dramatic technological advance, helping Homo sapiens out-compete, and eventually eradicate, their Stone Age cousins. Yet when the research team analysed their data there was no statistical difference between the efficiency of the two technologies. In fact, their findings showed that in some respects the flakes favoured by Neanderthals were more efficient than the blades adopted by Homo sapiens.

The Neanderthals, believed to be a different species from Homo sapiens, evolved in Ice Age Europe, while the latter evolved in Africa before spreading out to the rest of the world around 50-40,000 years ago. Neanderthals are thought to have died out around 28,000 years ago, suggesting at least 10,000 years of overlap and possible interaction between the two species in Europe.

Many long-held beliefs suggesting why the Neanderthals went extinct have been debunked in recent years. Research has already shown that Neanderthals were as good at hunting as Homo sapiens and had no clear disadvantage in their ability to communicate. Now, these latest findings add to the growing evidence that Neanderthals were no less intelligent than our ancestors.

Metin Eren, an MA Experimental Archaeology student at the University of Exeter and lead author on the paper comments: “Our research disputes a major pillar holding up the long-held assumption that Homo sapiens were more advanced than Neanderthals. It is time for archaeologists to start searching for other reasons why Neanderthals became extinct while our ancestors survived. Technologically speaking, there is no clear advantage of one tool over the other. When we think of Neanderthals, we need to stop thinking in terms of ‘stupid’ or ‘less advanced’ and more in terms of ‘different.'”

Now that it is established that there is no technical advantage to blades, why did Homo sapiens adopt this technology during their colonization of Europe? The researchers suggest that the reason for this shift may be more cultural or symbolic. Eren explains: “Colonizing a continent isn’t easy. Colonizing a continent during the Ice Age is even harder. So, for early Homo sapiens colonizing Ice Age Europe, a new shared and flashy-looking technology might serve as one form of social glue by which larger social networks were bonded. Thus, during hard times and resource droughts these larger social networks might act like a type of ‘life insurance,’ ensuring exchange and trade among members on the same ‘team.'”

The University of Exeter is the only university in the world to offer a degree course in Experimental Archaeology. This strand of archaeology focuses on understanding how people lived in the past by recreating their activities and replicating their technologies. Eren says: “It was only by spending three years in the lab learning how to physically make these tools that we were able to finally replicate them accurately enough to come up with our findings.”

This research was funded by the National Science Foundation of the USA and the Exeter Graduation Fund

I don’t think their their relative brain size was any different to ours. I’ll have to look it up though.

11 responses to “Neanderthals were as smart as humans.

  1. Blades were first produced by Homo sapiens during their colonization of Europe from Africa approximately 40,000 years ago. This has traditionally been thought to be a dramatic technological advance, helping Homo sapiens out-compete, and eventually eradicate, their Stone Age cousins.

    Actually stone blades seem to have been developed, apparently by Neanderthals, some 50-55,000 years ago within a culture known as Amoudian, directly related with more “normal” and widespread Yabroudian (Mousterian of Acheulean tradition), both from the Levant area. It does not seem to have local continuity but we may be missing something. Amoudian blade tools, that also include other “proto-Aurignacian” stuff like burins, scrappers, etc. appear more frequently in the earliest Yabroudian layers, becoming more and more scarce with time until the totally vanish.

    Additionally, there is some evidence of blade tech in India since c. 105,000 BP but the associated Homo species is unknown.

    It’s worth mentioning maybe that many clearly H. sapiens groups, specially in Eastern Eurasia, show only occasional or even null usage of blade tech. Certainly blade tech is not in itself a decissive advantage, even if it is clearly associated to H. sapiens penetration in Europe. H. sapiens must have got other advantages to beat the very strong and similarly smart Neanderthals in that competition. Some (Gamble) have speculated that gender division of labor among Sapiens allowed them to exploit much larger areas (because of increased male mobility), others that greater ability to exploit “marginal” resources like fish and lesser hunt.

    Our advantage was not just brains probably and certainly not brawn either, so probably it had to do with flexibility and versatility.

  2. I don’t think their their relative brain size was any different to ours. I’ll have to look it up though.

    If anything, slightly greater. But size is not all, obviously, “wiring” matters too. Since long ago it’s been speculated that their different cranial shape (low vaulted and extremely dolicocephalic) may indicate a different brain specialization, maybe with lesser developement of the frontal cortex and more of other areas. All very speculative in any case.

  3. Well, all the later information from Neanderthal sites suggests intellectually they were in the same ball park as modern humans.

    I think it was probably modern humans dietary versatility and better division of labour that gave them the edge. It doesn’t take much improvement to allow you to overwhelm your neighbours.

  4. So how do you know all this blade technology stuff?

    Another subject I have to look up now. Like I said, I do blood and bones mostly, not ‘stones’. Seems it is an area I should learn more about.

  5. So, for early Homo sapiens colonizing Ice Age Europe, a new shared and flashy-looking technology might serve as one form of social glue by which larger social networks were bonded. Thus, during hard times and resource droughts these larger social networks might act like a type of ‘life insurance,’ ensuring exchange and trade among members on the same ‘team.’

    Seems an interesting possibility, but I don’t think it tells us much at all, really. It doesn’t seem to explain why blades were first adopted by H sapiens and ultimately boils down to something I think fairly obvious: lithic technology tends to be rigorously conserved within a given culture. These weren’t monkeys banging rocks together at random. They weren’t picking out a good one and then attempting to produce others just like it. Stone tools were produced using very specific and somewhat sophisticated techniques. If a tool worked and worked well, there was no reason for change in the absence of some definite external pressure to do so. Their continued survival depended upon the tools of one generation performing exactly as those of their forebears.

    Should you take up the study of lithics, here’s a good place to start:

    http://www.hf.uio.no/iakh/forskning/sarc/iakh/lithic/sarc.html

  6. Thanks for the link Michael. I need to read up on this stuff.

  7. You’re most welcome. That site does a good job of explaining the technical terms and technology involved. I live in an area where surface finds are fairly common and it really helped me understand what I was seeing.

    And thanks for your blog. It’s been a joy reading along.

  8. Thank you Michael; it’s comments like that that keep me blogging.

  9. So how do you know all this blade technology stuff?

    Mostly by reading archaeology/prehistory books, from manuals to divulgations, passing by some more technical stuff (libraries can be a lot of help). But also from some online papers.

    This is the case for India, see: http://www.originsnet.org/SYNOPSIS%20OF%20PALEO%20INDIA.pdf. Also Petraglia-2007, DOI: 10.1126/science.1141564, mentions blade-like tools in Jawalpura, that clearly predate not just Aurignacian and proto-Aurignacian cultures of West Eurasia but also the presumed Neanderthal blade assamblages of palestinian Yabroudian.

  10. Kareem Shabazz

    what is egypt?That’s a johnny come lately term, developed by the greeks.

  11. Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

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