The success of Homo sapiens may be due to spatial abilities

May 09, 2012

While the disappearance of Neanderthals remains a mystery, paleoanthropologists have an increasing understanding of what allowed their younger cousins, Homo sapiens, to conquer the planet. According to Ariane Burke, Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the Université de Montréal, the rapid dispersal of anatomically modern humans was not so much due to superior intelligence or improved hunting or gathering techniques, but rather to the creation of symbolic objects that allowed them to extend their social relations across vast territories.

Symbolism and social exchanges

Homo sapiens arrived in Europe some 45,000 years ago, from Africa. In less than 15,000 years, they managed to occupy the whole of Europe and Eurasia—an extremely rapid expansion. Neanderthals, on the other hand, were born of Europe, appearing on the continent more than 250,000 years ago, after their ancestors, Homo ergaster, had established there 600,000 years earlier. Though physiologically well adapted to the cold climate of the glacial and postglacial periods, why were Neanderthals not as successful as their newly landed rivals in colonizing the continent?

“Neanderthals were quite capable of hunting herd animals and big game,” said the researcher. “They also knew how to feed on shellfish, plants, and nuts.”

Furthermore, they occupied diverse territories, with a variety of climates, ranging from the Iberian Peninsula to the Middle East and the Altai Mountains. Yet they never occupied the northern plains of Europe, where they would have been able to survive quite well.

Based on these facts, and considering that the territories occupied by Neanderthals were small and distant from each other, Burke speculates that the superiority of Homo sapiens was in their social organization, which developed during the Middle Paleolithic period between 200,000 and 35,000 years ago. This “modern” social organization is characterized by the maintenance of personal relations despite the absence of the persons involved, and over long distances.

These extended relationships were made possible by the invention of cultural and symbolic objects that facilitated intergroup exchanges.

“Objects of symbolic value, such as adornments, personal ornaments, animal tooth and shell necklaces, weapon decorations, and aesthetic stone incisions abound during the rapid dispersal of Homo sapiens in Eurasia,” says the researcher. The presence of these objects across vast territories indicates that exchanges took place; "these objects allowed those who possessed them to recall the social link they had established and, in turn, to develop an obligation of reciprocity."

These social contracts, consolidated by intergroup marriages, brought new territories, promoted exchange of information useful for survival, and allowed relying on allies in the face of adverse environmental conditions.

Neanderthals also made symbolic cultural objects, possibly intended for trade, but much later, in the Upper Paleolithic period (30,000 years ago). “It was probably too little, too late,” says Burke.

Navigation abilities

During the millennia-long expansion of these social exchanges, this development exerted selective pressure on the cognitive abilities of Homo sapiens. Indeed, occupying a vast territory requires special navigation abilities. Also according to Burke, it was during this period that humans developed their sense of orientation through an internal compass, or cognitive map, which allows spatial projection. This mode of locomotion is particularly suited to travelling long distances over plains, where nomads have few visual clues. On the other hand, navigating using topographical landmarks was well suited to the small spaces occupied by Neanderthals.

For Burke, however, it was brain plasticity that benefited the most from this selective effect. According to the anthropologist, the two navigation modes are based on separate abilities; the intersex differences observed today in this area, in which men are more successful in spatial projection and women in memorizing landmarks, are, in her view, artefacts of separate and sexually differentiated social behaviours.

While these elements may explain the rapid dispersal of Homo sapiens, they are less able to explain the disappearance of Neanderthals. Burke blames this on the great amount of stress placed on : environmental stress, climate stress, and population stress caused by competition from rivals who could better cope because of their more extensive networks.

Explore further: Greek archaeology site sparks intense interest (Update)

More information: This article was translated from a text originally written in French by Daniel Baril.

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kevinrtrs
1 / 5 (10) May 09, 2012
One should always keep these fanciful stories in perspective:
There is no one person who can testify to have witnessed these supposed events. All of these stories are inventions by people who have studied bones and human artifacts dug up from the depths and then using some worldview assumptions, reached the conclusions spun in these tales.

No matter how realistic it might appear to be, even having a great shine of truth on them, the fact remains - they are just so made up stories. The truth of what really happened is not in our grasp - not until someone invents a time travel machine that can take us back into time to witness what really transpired.

One thing that is repeatedly left out of these stories is the growing evidence that human beings used agriculture from the start. This immediately overthrows the hunter-gatherer stories, perhaps not in total[some small clans might have had to rely on it] but certainly as a general principle.

TopherTO
5 / 5 (6) May 09, 2012
One thing that is repeatedly left out of these stories is the growing evidence that human beings used agriculture from the start. This immediately overthrows the hunter-gatherer stories, perhaps not in total[some small clans might have had to rely on it] but certainly as a general principle.


I think Kevin you need to understand that even if we will never know something for certain, developing theories and testing them against evidence is better than shrugging your shoulders and using your lame time machine excuse.

How is your agricultural theory any different? Did you hop in your time machine to prove this definitively? Or did you do what the study did and use deductive reasoning based on known evidence?

Do you think even a small group of individuals can survive on primitive agriculture alone? Even the most abundant yields cannot provide the full complement of nutrients, thus, not difficult to assume there may be balance of both small scale farming and hunting/gathering
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (2) May 09, 2012
"...but rather to the creation of symbolic objects that allowed them to extend their social relations across vast territories."

Yeah right. It was their unchecked tropical reproduction rate which enabled cromags to extend their social relations across vast territories. Same as today.

Neanderthals had lived in temperate and sub-arctic environs for 300k years and, like any other animal, their reproduction had likely become seasonal. Babies born in early spring have the best chance of surviving the next winter.

Our cultures reflect this in the traditional june wedding. Did we inherit this from neanderthal or is this just an indication of the evolutionary tendency?
One should always keep these fanciful stories in perspective
Of course and one should realize that adam and eve began to wear fig leaves because eden was in germany somewhere and it was cold.
not until someone invents a time travel machine
-You mean like the bible? No evidence for any of THAT at ALL is there?
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.3 / 5 (3) May 09, 2012
One thing that is repeatedly left out of these stories is the growing evidence that human beings used agriculture from the start.
Please oh please kevin wont you provide a link to this revelation lest we will again have to call you baldfaced liar -?

And we wouldnt want to have to do that AGAIN.
Green_Dragon
1 / 5 (1) May 09, 2012
I agree with kevins notion that these are stories, but they are important. I don't agree with this agriculture from the start business though, Otto's explanation is more likely.
Telekinetic
5 / 5 (5) May 09, 2012
"One thing that is repeatedly left out of these stories is the growing evidence that human beings used agriculture from the start."- kevinrts
There is solid evidence that agriculture was well established ten thousand years ago, which contradicts the six thousand year- old earth theory. Now I don't know what to believe. Please advise.
Telekinetic
5 / 5 (3) May 09, 2012
When one considers the merciless decimation of indigenous tribes and species around the globe by modern Homo sapiens, is it really difficult to imagine a concerted effort of annihilation of the Neanderthal by our forebears?
Lurker2358
not rated yet May 09, 2012
When one considers the merciless decimation of indigenous tribes and species around the globe by modern Homo sapiens, is it really difficult to imagine a concerted effort of annihilation of the Neanderthal by our forebears?


Have you ever looked around in a mixed crowd at just how different morphology is within modern humans, even though we are all like 99.9% genetically identical?

Different head sizes, especially across races, but even within races.

Different mouth and nose shapes.

Different heights.

Different shoulder widths, etc.

Why is it so hard to imagine that Neanderthals weren't just another "race" of modern humans, the same as African, oriental, white, native american?

It's already been claimed that there was some inbreeding between the "Neanderthals" and the "Homo sapiens" anyway.

Yes, genocide is a real possibility. There seems to be a Hitler or two for every generation in history.
Telekinetic
5 / 5 (2) May 09, 2012
"It's already been claimed that there was some inbreeding between the "Neanderthals" and the "Homo sapiens" anyway."
As there was racial mixing between white settlers and Native Americans. That didn't stop the unspeakable obliteration of their populations. Native Americans "looked" much different to the whites, who dubbed them savages, then virtually wiped them out. The Neanderthal looked distinctly different as well, and with a sharp competition for food, it was winner take all. I haven't even mentioned the Conquistadors...
Green_Dragon
not rated yet May 10, 2012
Well lurker simply because they don't fit in the gene pool. The mitochondrial DNA studies are evidence that little or no interbreeding took place. Neanderthal faces were more different than any variant of homo sapiens face, so we probably found them unattractive anyway
Lurker2358
not rated yet May 10, 2012
I haven't even mentioned the Conquistadors...


Don't know why they bothered to bring "priests" with them. They seemed to have killed the men everywhere they went, and then raped the women.

They did whatever the priest and king told them to do, even if it contradicted their own alleged core beliefs. They use "God" and false theology to justify anything, just like Muslims in the modern world.

It seems to be a fact of human history that there is a Holocaust at least once every generation or two.
aroc91
5 / 5 (3) May 10, 2012
One thing that is repeatedly left out of these stories is the growing evidence that human beings used agriculture from the start. This immediately overthrows the hunter-gatherer stories, perhaps not in total[some small clans might have had to rely on it but certainly as a general principle.


One should always keep these fanciful stories in perspective:
There is no one person who can testify to have witnessed these supposed events. All of these stories are inventions by people who have studied bones and human artifacts dug up from the depths and then using some worldview assumptions, reached the conclusions spun in these tales.

No matter how realistic it might appear to be, even having a great shine of truth on them, the fact remains - they are just so made up stories. The truth of what really happened is not in our grasp - not until someone invents a time travel machine that can take us back into time to witness what really transpired.

SEE WHAT I DID THERE, KEVIN?
vega12
not rated yet May 10, 2012
One should always keep these fanciful stories in perspective:
There is no one person who can testify to have witnessed these supposed events. All of these stories are inventions by people who have studied bones and human artifacts dug up from the depths and then using some worldview assumptions, reached the conclusions spun in these tales.

No matter how realistic it might appear to be, even having a great shine of truth on them, the fact remains - they are just so made up stories. The truth of what really happened is not in our grasp - not until someone invents a time travel machine that can take us back into time to witness what really transpired.

SEE WHAT I DID THERE, KEVIN?

Good catch,but I'm not sure kevin reads the comments. I think he just posts in them :P