Neanderthals were not less intelligent than modern humans, scientists find

The Guardian reports: Scientists have concluded that Neanderthals were not the primitive dimwits they are commonly portrayed to have been.

The view of Neanderthals as club-wielding brutes is one of the most enduring stereotypes in science, but researchers who trawled the archaeological evidence say the image has no basis whatsoever.

They said scientists had fuelled the impression of Neanderthals being less than gifted in scores of theories that purport to explain why they died out while supposedly superior modern humans survived.

Wil Roebroeks at Leiden University in the Netherlands said: “The connotation is generally negative. For instance, after incidents with the Dutch Ajax football hooligans about a week ago, one Dutch newspaper piece pleaded to make football stadiums off-limits for such ‘Neanderthals’.”

The Neanderthals are believed to have lived between roughly 350,000 and 40,000 years ago, their populations spreading from Portugal in the west to the Altai mountains in central Asia in the east. They vanished from the fossil record when modern humans arrived in Europe.

The reasons for the demise of the Neanderthals have long been debated in the scientific community, but many explanations assume that modern humans had a cognitive edge that manifested itself in more cooperative hunting, better weaponry and innovation, a broader diet, or other major advantages.

Roebroeks and his colleague, Dr Paola Villa at the University of Colorado Museum in Boulder, trawled through the archaeological records to look for evidence of modern human superiority that underpinned nearly a dozen theories about the Neanderthals’ demise and found that none of them stood up.

“The explanations make good stories, but the only problem is that there is no archaeology to back them up,” said Roebroeks.

Villa said part of the misunderstanding had arisen because researchers compared Neanderthals with their successors, the modern humans who lived in the Upper Palaeolithic, rather than the humans who lived at the same time. That is like saying people in the 19th century were less intelligent than those in the 21st because they didn’t have laptops and space travel.

“The evidence for cognitive inferiority is simply not there,” said Villa. “What we are saying is that the conventional view of Neanderthals is not true.” The study is published in the journal Plos One. [Continue reading…]

It’s always worth remembering that modernity as it is lived (rather than as it is written about) is nothing more than a name for the present — that point which stands right on the edge of an unknown future. In this sense all humans and other hominids have lived in a modern condition and their innovations have been defined by what was contemporary.

If comparisons can usefully be made between humans and their closest kin at different points in history, rather than judge them on the basis of the artifacts they have created, a more interesting question is how well each has been attuned to the environment that supports them.

That attunement probably cannot be scientifically quantified since in part it would have to be measured through attributes that might leave no physical traces — such as knowledge about the medicinal properties of plants.

Since the arc of human progress has largely been defined by our increasing ability to cut ourselves off from the world in which we live, in terms of environmental attunement, the human of today is less advanced than a Neanderthal.

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