Neanderthals were not inferior to modern humans, study finds

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 By Science Daily

If you think Neanderthals were stupid and primitive, it’s time to think again.

The widely held notion that Neanderthals were dimwitted and that their inferior intelligence allowed them to be driven to extinction by the much brighter ancestors of modern humans is not supported by scientific evidence, according to a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Neanderthals thrived in a large swath of Europe and Asia between about 350,000 and 40,000 years ago. They disappeared after our ancestors, a group referred to as “anatomically modern humans,” crossed into Europe from Africa.

In the past, some researchers have tried to explain the demise of the Neanderthals by suggesting that the newcomers were superior to Neanderthals in key ways, including their ability to hunt, communicate, innovate and adapt to different environments.

But in an extensive review of recent Neanderthal research, CU-Boulder researcher Paola Villa and co-author Wil Roebroeks, an archaeologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, make the case that the available evidence does not support the opinion that Neanderthals were less advanced than anatomically modern humans. Their paper was published today in the journal PLOS ONE.

“The evidence for cognitive inferiority is simply not there,” said Villa, a curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History. “What we are saying is that the conventional view of Neanderthals is not true.”

Villa and Roebroeks scrutinized nearly a dozen common explanations for Neanderthal extinction that rely largely on the notion that the Neanderthals were inferior to anatomically modern humans. These include the hypotheses that Neanderthals did not use complex, symbolic communication; that they were less efficient hunters who had inferior weapons; and that they had a narrow diet that put them at a competitive disadvantage to anatomically modern humans, who ate a broad range of things.

The researchers found that none of the hypotheses were supported by the available research. For example, evidence from multiple archaeological sites in Europe suggests that Neanderthals hunted as a group, using the landscape to aid them.

Researchers have shown that Neanderthals likely herded hundreds of bison to their death by steering them into a sinkhole in southwestern France. At another site used by Neanderthals, this one in the Channel Islands, fossilized remains of 18 mammoths and five 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 authors said.

30 COMMENTS

  1. It has always seemed to me that the most likely reason for modern humans supplanting the older Neanderthal species is likely to be related to disease.

    My view was greatly strengthened by the book Guns Germs and Steel. While the book is focused on the much later migrations of Europeans, and the devastating results on native peoples, it still offers a powerful parallel model.

    A key point is that in Africa the Europeans found the going far tougher as they and their livestock fell foul of diseases that they had not previously encountered (the reverse of the situation elsewhere).

    Our species emerged much later from Africa – a crucible of evolution – and could very easily have taken more virulent strains, even entirely new diseases, with them. Neanderthals’ close relationship to us, biologically, would have made them ideal breeding grounds and very susceptible while, simultaneously, having immune systems simply unable to cope.

    With no healthcare systems, no vaccines and not even a basic understanding of what disease is the Neanderthals could quite easily have been exterminated by a single new disease, that most Humans could recover from, in a matter of only a few decades.

    Consider, for example, influenza. Such a disease would, to the best of my admittedly very limited knowledge, leave no trace in any body where the soft tissue has all rotted away – making testing this hypothesis tricky.

    The 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak killed even modern humans – estimates vary up to 100 million deaths.

    The time it took for the Neanderthals to die out (as a species) could be evidence for the time it took for humans to travel to new areas – there were no roads. In addition, the Humans would have had just as little idea why, when they moved into a new area, the Neanderthals tended to disappear.

    In this model, the disease would take away some of the pressure to compete and this would also have a slowing effect on Human migration.

    A disease like influenza – where it is possible to catch it, survive it, then catch a new strain – might also explain why it is possible to find evidence of Humans and Neanderthals living side-by-side. Such arrangements could have gone on for years before some Human from outside brought the disease back into the area.

    I think the best evidence must be in evidence of humans of the period suffering from pandemics and the probable coincidences of falls in nearby Neanderthal numbers – and in the human migration record compared to the falls in Neanderthal numbers at the ‘frontier’ of that migration.

    Anybody else got a pet theory?

    Peace.

    • . With no healthcare systems, no vaccines and not even a basic understanding of what disease is the Neanderthals could quite easily have been exterminated by a single new disease, that most Humans could recover from, in a matter of only a few decades.

      Ha ha! They were just born too soon. Parallels can be drawn.

    • @ – Stephen of Wimbledon
      Anybody else got a pet theory?

      There are modern day parallels with different races/tribes and cultures:-

      http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0886540/plotsummary?ref_=tt_ov_pl
      The San people, more commonly known as Bushmen, are believed to be the earliest inhabitants of southern Africa. They have lived for 80,000 years as hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari Desert, and are well-known for their expert survival skills in a harsh environment. Their unique clicking languages and their astonishing method of healing through trance dancing have made them a source of worldwide fascination. But these peaceful people are not immune from the problems of modern society, and have faced oppression and eviction from their homelands for years. Vanishing Cultures: Bushmen of the Kalahari” visits the troubled San community whose once thriving culture is now facing extinction. This one-hour documentary takes a never-before-seen look at the fascinating history, the brutal struggles, and the seemingly impossible challenges of the Bushmen of the Kalahari.

      There seem to be the same references to this on 2 links.

      http://www.cultureunplugged.com/documentary/watch-online/play/2252/Vanishing-Cultures–Bushmen-of-the-Kalahari

      and then this one:-

      http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0102/feature6/

    • This is an excellent point, and disease always has to be considered. Think of the 90% kill rate of Native Americans after the arrival of Columbus. Some of that number can be attributed to warfare, enslavement, and direct killings, but disease played a major part. In reference to Neandertals I think you would have to look at the pattern of extinction. Was it a rapid event, which would support a disease model, or was or was it more gradual and geographically dispersed? My guess is that disease may be a factor, but given the gradual time of extinction birth and death rates could play a major factor too.

      Cheers,

  2. Steven:

    I think you may have something; just as the influx of Europeans into the Americas and elsewhere caused havoc among the indigenous populations whose immune systems were simply overwhelmed by non native strains of disease, it’s what you’d expect to happen among Neanderthals.

    The Polynesians copped a packet of STDs from horny tars; bugs never miss a trick, and although we hate to admit it, they rule the roost.

  3. Interesting hypothesis Stephen, and one that has been previously posed and considered.

    This is an exerpt from Livescience:
    Probably the most debated aspect of Neanderthal life in recent years is whether or not they interbred with humans. The answer remains ambiguous, with scholarly opinions ranging from belief that they definitely interbred to belief that the two groups didn’t exist on earth at the same time.

    Neanderthal expert Erik Trinhaus has long promoted the interbreeding hypothesis, but the theory really caught fire when a 2010 study published in Science magazine determined that Neanderthal DNA is 99.7 percent identical to modern human DNA (a chimp’s is 99.8 percent identical). Researchers of the Neanderthal Genome Projectfound that 2.5 percent of an average non-African human’s genome is made up of Neanderthal DNA. The average modern African has no Neanderthal DNA. This information could support the interbreeding hypothesis because it suggests that humans and Neanderthals only bred once humans had moved out of Africa, into Eurasia. They could have interbred as recently as 37,000 years ago.

    A 2012 study led by Dr. Rachel Wood, however, cast doubt on that theory. Researchers re-examined bones from southern Spain that were used in earlier studies with new radiocarbon dating techniques. They discovered that the Neanderthal bones were more than 50,000 years old. Humans aren’t believed to have settled in the area until 42,000 years ago, meaning that it may be unlikely that they lived together and interbred.

    If humans and Neanderthals didn’t interbreed, the similar genomes of humans and Neanderthals could be the result of both groups having a common African ancestor.

    Extinction

    No one knows exactly why Neanderthals went extinct and why humans survived. Some scholars theorize that gradual or dramatic climate change led them to their demise, while others blame dietary deficiencies. Some theorize that humans killed the Neanderthals. Until recently the hypothesis that Neanderthals didn’t go extinct but simply interbred with humans until they were absorbed into our species was popular.

    I had my personal DNA for a study in 23andMe and discovered much to my surprise that
    I have 1.07 percent Neanderthal DNA, and you will find it in every living person today, as is my understanding of what I have read there. Just for fuel for the theory.

    • BurninMan – I have 1.07 percent Neanderthal DNA, and you will find it in every living person today, as is my understanding of what I have read there. Just for fuel for the theory.

      Not quite! You are only partly right!

      Everyone living outside of Africa today has a small amount of Neanderthal in them, carried as a living relic of these ancient encounters. A team of scientists comparing the full genomes of the two species concluded that most Europeans and Asians have between 1 to 4 percent Neanderthal DNA. Indigenous sub-Saharan Africans have no Neanderthal DNA because their ancestors did not migrate through Eurasia. https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/neanderthal/

    • Hi BurningMan,

      Thank you for a thoughtful response.

      DNA evidence of inter-breeding tells us that the two species were in contact – and certainly close enough to pass on diseases!

      It seems to me that a gap in the fossil record might be misleading (pending further discoveries). However, working with what we have, a gap of 8,000 years between large-scale human arrival in Europe and the demise of Neanderthals as a species is being proposed.

      The two lines of evidence, stated that way, appear to counter each other. But they cannot cancel each other out – facts are facts. We need to find a hypothesis that explains both.

      Is it possible, I wonder, that humans had many brief contacts with Neanderthals and that conflict was the most common outcome? This is certainly the most common outcome between human groups – and Neanderthals would have been even more readily identifiable as different.

      It seems to me that history also tells us that when disaster strikes, such as an epidemic, groups tend to turn on a kind of ‘Blame Game’. Neighbouring groups then feel the heat (or spear point).

      In such cases the evidence of Neanderthal intelligence and greater strength would tend to indicate that the outcomes of physically violent encounters would, at best, have been indecisive. However, if humans were carrying disease during brief, violent, encounters they would have been carrying a secret weapon – secret even from themselves. Long after a battle won or lost Neanderthals involved in it, and exposed to the pathogen, might have been dying off and even spreading the disease to other Neanderthals.

      If my more advanced hypothesis is correct there might be almost no evidence of humans and Neanderthals living side-by-side in some areas. There would be evidence of Neanderthal decline (which could easily be quite sudden) prior to their lands being colonised by new African immigrants – us.

      The tiny amount of Neanderthal DNA would appear to support a disease(s) hypothesis as human DNA would have been required to build the bodies that survived the disease(s).

      8,000 years is a big gap in modern terms. We’re used to history being played out over mere centuries when we look at records. Even so, I can’t help thinking that it isn’t a deal breaker for my hypothesis.

      Peace.

  4. I’m happy that the Neanderthals weren’t stupid and that I’ve got some of their DNA in me, if for no other reason than it drops yet another depth charge into the murky waters of creationism, Adam and Eve and all that nonsense.

    Jeez it takes brains to make your own shelter, clothes, hunt your own food, know what you can and can’t eat and deal with everyday life with all the other omnipresent dangers of life in those days. There is no way they were “stupid”. I couldn’t do it, but then society has moved on, and we rely much more on each other than ever before. The likes of me don’t have to worry about the ‘day to day struggle’ in the same way as the Neanderthals did.

    • I’m not sure that having survival skills like the ones you describe, are evidence of intelligence. Insects manage, for example…

      To be honest, I thought the rearchers mentioned original article might have been guilty of as much hubris in saying Neanderthal’s weren’t intellectually inferior, as those who said they were. There seems too little evidence to be sure either way. Co-operating in hunting groups, for example, is evidence of some intelligence, but lots of animals do that. If Neanderthals did die out directly or indirectly because of the superior intellect of humans, it might not even have been a substantial difference. In a finely contested environment, even a small advantage might have been decisive.

      Good on the researchers for questioning and investigating old assumptions, but let’s keep in mind that it’s human nature to exaggerate one’s own research… (Let me hasten to add that I might be doing these researchers an injustice, as I haven’t read their papers – but the article itself is not very persuasive that their hypothesis is well supported).

  5. As an Australian with mostly British ancestry, I have assumed that I am descended from both Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon ancestors, and ultimately from African pre-stone-agers. I’d like to know if members of all three of these groups (species?) were at least as intelligent as the modern human. I’d also like to know who the ancestors of the Australian Indigenous people were. Are we not all varieties of the same species? Yours, Jolyon

  6. Looking at the demographic conflicts all over the world today. Maybe the humans just came. Had territorial conflicts and wiped them out in genocides/ethnic cleansing. Intelligence is not the only deciding factor in conflict and humans do not need to be more intelligent to defeat them in war. The migrants could have been stronger, faster, larger in number at the time of conflict and more aggressive.

  7. I think I read somewhere that Neanderthals had a very high caloric requirement because of how active they were – and this was related to them living in smaller groups. They needed to bring down 1 game animal the size of a deer or bigger every other day because each individual man hunted more often than in contemporary hunter-gatherer societies. Not to mention, living in a smaller group – if a female of breeding age died, that was a huge loss of reproductive capacity. Neanderthal remains had a lot of injuries on them… these were a hearty people, but they were a people who lived on the edge.

    I don’t think it’s so much that anatomically modern humans out-competed them… more the case that Neanderthal already lived so close to the edge that a minor tip in the ecological balance was enough to send them off the cliff. Climate change, an alteration in animal migration patterns, populations becoming separated… more than enough to do these people in.

  8. Thank you Stephen for that detailed reply. I think your argument is extremely cogent and sensible.

    I think your reply also goes a long way to answer another respondents (Ayodele) comments with respect to warring genocide.
    I do not think the ongoing and laborious forensic study of Neanderthal bones has shown evidence of murder en masse, which I believe can be determined by careful examination.
    Also, the ‘migrants’ obviously would not have been stronger. Perhaps faster, but not stronger. I think it seems pretty unlikely that war is what lead to a mass extinction and the 8000 year gap you spoke of would seem to eliminate that hypothesis.

    So, how does science square the gap? What other new evidence or discovery is on the horizon? Only time……

  9. There seems to be some evidence that cross-breeding of Homo species and assimilation played a part in the extinction of the separate species/sub-species.

    Tibetan altitude gene inherited ‘from extinct species’ – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-28127785

    A gene that allows present-day people to cope with life at high altitude was inherited from an extinct species of human, Nature journal has reported.

    The variant of the EPAS-1 gene, which affects blood oxygen, is common in Tibetans – many of whom live at altitudes of 4,000m all year round.

    But the DNA sequence matches one found in the extinct Denisovan people.

    Many of us carry DNA from extinct humans who interbred with our ancestors as the latter expanded out of Africa.

    Both the Neanderthals – who emerged around 400,000 years ago and lived in Europe and western Asia until 35,000 years ago – and the enigmatic Denisovans contributed DNA to present-day people.

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