We are very similar to the Neanderthals in a lot of ways. So why did we go flourish whilst they went extinct? One hypothesis is that, despite our similarities, we were still smarter than them.
These allowed us to make all sorts of technological advances that gave us an advantage over the Neanderthals. We could make fancier tools, better settlements, use more advanced hunting strategies, and more.
It turns out that many of these advantages don’t exist. So is there still enough of a difference between us to prove the Neanderthals were dumber?
Maybe not. At least, according to some research which indicates the idea of smarter humans needs to go extinct. Is this really the case?
Since the Neanderthals were discovered their extinction has been a puzzle. They were well adapted for the cold European environment they lived in, had big brains, and big muscles. So with all these advantages, why did they die out?
Many hypotheses have been proposed. Some have argued that they had a meat-focused diet, leaving them vulnerable to changes in local fauna. Others have claimed that their muscular bodies weren’t very efficient, putting them at a disadvantage compared to us. However, many of these have been challenged (and refuted) in recent years. One of the few ideas yet to go extinct is that there was some sort of cognitive difference between humans and Neanderthals that gave us the edge.
However, testing this has proven a bit tricky. It’s hard to give an extinct species an IQ test after all. Instead, scientists have to try and find indicators of intelligence in their technology. This has led to the development of long lists of technological differences between humans and Neanderthals. These differences are thought to hint at underlying cognitive differences; although it’s often hard to draw a direct relationship. What does it mean when one group uses bone tools, whilst another doesn’t? Does it really show humans were smarter?
Despite these issues, the technological differences are thought to indicate three key ways humans were smarter than Neanderthals:
- Better capacity for planning and thinking ahead.
- Better at innovation and being flexible. Humans were able to quickly adapt to changes and come up with new tools to solve problems, giving them the edge.
- Symbolic behaviour; allowing for complex ideas to be stored and transmitted. Often detected through personal ornamentation, art, and burials
Secretly smarter Neanderthals
Given these clear technological differences between us and Neanderthals, it seems fairly clear that we were smarter than them. Except, it turns out that many of these technological differences might not actually exist.
A pair of palaeoanthropologists (or maybe secret Neanderthal sympathisers) examined the technology produced by modern humans and Neanderthals from the emergence of modern humans (~200,000 years ago) to the decline of the Neanderthals (~40,000 years ago). This period is good for this sort of comparison because humans hadn’t reached Europe yet. As such they probably wouldn’t be regularly encountering Neanderthals. So any advanced Neanderthal technology couldn’t be explained away as simply them copying the local humans.
And it turns out that when there was no substantial difference between humans and Neanderthals during this period:
- Humans and Neanderthals were both burying their dead, indicating symbolism.
- Both produced complex tools, heat-treated to improve toughness and attached to wooden handles with complex bindings
- Both had broad diets and advanced hunting strategies.
- Both had similarly sized social networks, obtaining raw materials from far away through trade
Nobody got time for that
Based on all this, the researchers conclude that the intellectual differences between our two species don’t really exist.
We have found no data in support of the supposed technological, social and cognitive inferiority of Neandertals compared to their AMH [anatomically modern human] contemporaries.
Except I’m not quite sure that’s what they showed. Cast your mind back a couple of minutes to when you were reading about the differences between humans and Neanderthals. One of them was that we’re more flexible and innovative. These researchers refuted this by pointing out that both humans and Neanderthals produced different toolkits for a specific time and place. They interpreted this as evidence both were flexibly changing their technology to changing environments.
Except they didn’t break it down and see how much was changing within those toolkits. The fact they had different names was enough to confirm they were different and the Neanderthals had flexibly innovated something new.
But when you do break it down and see how much Neanderthal technology actually changed; the results aren’t that impressive. The number of different tools produced by the Neanderthals didn’t really change over time; even when the climate they lived in change. Conversely, modern humans tend to increase the number of different tools in harsher climate; allowing them to specalise and reduce the risk of failure.
Based on all this, it seems humans still have a cognitive edge when it comes to behavioural flexilibity and innovation. But is that enough to explain why the Neanderthals went extinct? Probably not. The authors of this new paper still make a strong case that:
single-factor explanations for the disappearance of the Neandertals are not warranted any more, and that their demise was clearly more complex than many archaeology-based scenarios of “cognitive inferiority” reviewed here seem to suggest
Humans weren’t actually that much smarter than Neanderthals; although we may still have had the edge when it came to innovation.
Bocquet-Appel, J.P. and Tuffreau, A., 2009. Technological responses of Neanderthals to macroclimatic variations (240,000-40,000 BP).Human Biology, pp.287-307.
Boyd, R., & Silk, J. B. (2015). How Humans Evolved. WW Norton & Company, New York.
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