New evidence debunks 'stupid' Neanderthal myth

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 today (26 August) 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."

Citation: Are Upper Paleolithic blade cores more productive than Middle Paleolithic discoidal cores? A replication experiment is published by Elsevier, in the Journal of Human Evolution. Authors: Metin I. Eren, Aaron Greenspan, C. Garth Sampson.

Source: University of Exeter

Explore further: Jerusalem stone may answer Jewish revolt questions

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

What gave us the advantage over extinct types of humans?

Apr 22, 2014

In parallel with modern man (Homo sapiens), there were other, extinct types of humans with whom we lived side by side, such as Neanderthals and the recently discovered Denisovans of Siberia. Yet only Homo s ...

Recommended for you

Jerusalem stone may answer Jewish revolt questions

9 minutes ago

Israeli archaeologists said Tuesday they have discovered a large stone with Latin engravings that lends credence to the theory that the reason Jews revolted against Roman rule nearly 2,000 ago was because of their harsh treatment.

Kung fu stegosaur

40 minutes ago

Stegosaurs might be portrayed as lumbering plant eaters, but they were lethal fighters when necessary, according to paleontologists who have uncovered new evidence of a casualty of stegosaurian combat. The ...

Digging for Britain's real-life war horses

4 hours ago

Archaeologists from the University of Bristol have teamed up with school children, veterans of modern conflict and other volunteers to uncover the history of Britain's real-life war horses.

User comments : 15

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Aloken
3.3 / 5 (6) Aug 26, 2008
Just because their tools weren't inferior that doesn't mean they were as intelligent as homo sapiens.
Doug_Huffman
2.6 / 5 (5) Aug 26, 2008
Proof that Neanderthal is still with us and almost able to communicate.

Once she goes Neanderthal she'll never go back.
Sancho
2.8 / 5 (6) Aug 26, 2008
Lacking the "killer instinct," Neanderthals were easy pickings. We had the blades. We smelled blood. We took 'em, like Sherman took Atlanta. However, I don't think it's accurate to say they are extinct. Part of their genome survived in us. (Met a girl from France once who was a dead ringer for one of those "artist's conception" images of a Neanderthal.)
CaptSpaulding
3 / 5 (1) Aug 26, 2008
This is like saying because two people can pour water into a cup, both people are equally intelligent. While it is an interesting find, the ability to make a simple tool does not define how it was used or who developed it first or other traits that aren't readily obvious on first glance. Frankly, I can't see any evidence that says which species is more intelligent, but I'm willing to bet one or the other had an edge.
Modernmystic
3.8 / 5 (4) Aug 26, 2008
Actually their hunting techniques and technology were VERY different from us. We used long slender spears and killed from a distance. They used shorter broader spears and killed using a direct thrust.

When the climate changed in Europe (yes climate can actually change without a coal plant to blame it on...really) the forests the Neanderthals hunted in went away. Without the heavy timber to camouflage their approach and which complimented their adopted style of hunting we slowly won out.

Basically it was a lack of trees that killed them...at least that's what the Discovery Channel program I saw said :P
earls
3 / 5 (2) Aug 26, 2008
Score 1 Geico Caveman
Glis
3 / 5 (2) Aug 26, 2008
Doesn't anybody watch Sliders?! The Cromags are out there, and sadly they have telepathy.

I personally believe that the cromags developed super fast and are now our invisable overlords.
D666
5 / 5 (1) Aug 26, 2008
There is a difference between "This debunks the myth of..." and "The researchers CLAIM that this debunks the myth of...". I'm not partial one way or the other on this question, I'm just saying that saying it doesn't necessarily make it so.
Modernmystic
5 / 5 (1) Aug 26, 2008
I'm also highly suspect of this article.

First of all I don't think you can directly correlate intelligence based on efficiency of tool use...especially for neolithic times when the same technology was being used and refined by Neanderthals for hundreds of thousands of years, and by our own ancestors for tens of thousands.

Furthermore, while the Neanderthal brain was in most cases larger than ours, it wasn't larger in the important place with respect to intelligence, in fact it was smaller. We are the kings of the cerebrum, they were the kings of the cerebellum. In my estimation this fact alone suggests that we are/were indeed more intelligent and adaptable than they were because it's well known to medical science that the cerebrum is where virtually all higher brain functions reside.

Just my two cents.
tealeebee
not rated yet Aug 27, 2008
Disregarding elusive but possible DNA links, which would show intermingling of CroMagnon and Neanderthal lines, physiological factors like gestation periods, fertility ages, low immunity to viruses or even the suggestion that Neanderthals might have suffered from vertigo are among influences that could have caused their line to "vanish," if indeed that is what happened. I must also dispute the contention that there was merely 10,000 years of contact, but even over periods of that length (nearly twice the stretch of our own recorded human history), simple things mount up and ultimately result in tremendous survival differences.
jeffsaunders
not rated yet Aug 27, 2008
Neanderthals were probably less different from Homo Sapiens than say Tigers are from Lions.

Now I can't say whether Lions would cross breed with Tigers if they both inhabited the same continent but they certainly can cross breed.

Since both Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals are considered more intelligent than either Lions or Tigers and since I know that there are many Homo Sapiens that are not particular fussy about same species coitus then we would have to assume there was a very high likely hood that some cross-over existed.

And since Africa probably produced more Homo Sapiens after the first wave, we can guess that sheer numbers may have relegated Neanderthals and Neanderthal cross-breeds to a relative small sample of the population.

Are the Neanderthals still with us most probably at least in gene mix. Were the full-bloods less intelligent than Homo Sapiens - well maybe but they were at least different.
Slamshift
5 / 5 (2) Aug 27, 2008
Finally, the Neaderthals get some respect.

EVERYONE knows the CroMags were the Stephen Hawking/Michael C. Fina/Uri Gellers of their day.

That's right. I am going on the record to say that not only did they postulate the theorectical physical existance of spoons, but they also produced them... and then bent 'em.

Damn smart folks, them CroMags.




Wow...I really have been awake too long...
NeilFarbstein
1 / 5 (2) Aug 27, 2008
Since the American indians and every other primitive ethnic group on earth all use blades and not flakes, the hypotheses stated above are probably wrong. Blades weight less and its easier to put some type of handle or holder on them to prevent hand injuries.
Hotscot
5 / 5 (3) Aug 27, 2008
Oh, the Neanderthals are still with us; most are registered with the GOP :-)
RealScience
not rated yet Aug 30, 2008
Anyone who has ever seen the images from the Tantric temples in India will have no doubt that at least some humans would have had sex with Neanderthals.

If hybrids are rare, it probably means that there was a barrier to reproduction. This could be a simple as a chromosomal rearrangement that would make interbreeding impossible.
It could have been something subtler, such as Neanderthals being RH negative, which would would allow interbreeding but would suppress Neanderthal mitochondria because Neanderthal females carrying mixed children would have RH compatibility problems. And one of the main arguments that there was no interbreeding comes from a lack of Neanderthal mitochondria in the present population.
Perhaps this is even why the Basque country,
which is where the Neanderthals are thought to survived longest, has the highest percentage of RH negative people.