Modern humans were not any smarter than Neanderthals, say scientists

Neanderthals that lived in Eurasia for more than 300,000 years were skillful hunters making use of the landscape to kill animals, say researchers  

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II
This Jan. 8, 2003 file photo shows a reconstructed Neanderthal skeleton, right, and a modern human version of a skeleton, left, on display at the Museum of Natural History in New York.

What killed off the Neanderthals?

Some scientists have speculated that they were out-competed by brainier H. sapiens, but researchers now say that Neanderthals, who lived in Eurasia for more than 300,000 years, were not that dumb after all.  

In a paper titled "Neandertal Demise: An Archaeological Analysis of the Modern Human Superiority Complex" published in PLOS One, researchers challenge the notion that modern humans were superior to Neanderthals "in a wide range of domains, including weaponry and subsistence strategies, which would have led to the demise of Neandertals."

After examining the remains from various archaeological sites associated with Neanderthals, CU-Boulder researcher Paola Villa and co-author of the paper said, "The evidence for cognitive inferiority is simply not there. What we are saying is that the conventional view of Neanderthals is not true."

Artifacts and remains of animal bones reveal that Neanderthals used the landscape to hunt animals. An archaeological site excavated in France shows that they used sinkhole as a trap to hunt bison. And other evidence shows the use of deep ravines to hunt animals.

"Neandertals were by all means accomplished large game hunters, who survived in a wide range of environments subsisting by hunting a wide range of animals in a variety of topographical settings," note the researchers in their paper.

Microfossils found in their teeth show that Neanderthals had a diverse diet that included aquatic foods, small and fast game such as birds and rabbits, date palms, and grass seeds.

Recent information available on "Neandertal use of ochre and manganese as well as on Neandertal production of pitch, the presence of transported and ochre-smeared shells, of ornaments such as eagle claws and perhaps bird feathers," goes to show that they had cultural rituals.

So far, Neanderthals have been subjected to unfair comparison because "[r]esearchers were comparing Neanderthals not to their contemporaries on other continents but to their successors," Dr. Villa said. "It would be like comparing the performance of Model T Fords, widely used in America and Europe in the early part of the last century, to the performance of a modern-day Ferrari and conclude that Henry Ford was cognitively inferior to Enzo Ferrari."

When it comes to what caused the demise of Neanderthals, researchers say that there is no evidence that Neanderthal extinction was due to behavioral or technological inferiority. Current genetic studies suggest that the Neanderthal demise was a complex process including many factors, such as interbreeding, possible male hybrid sterility, and assimilation by the increasing numbers of modern immigrants, Villa wrote in an email.

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