Turns out the theory that Neanderthals were dumb might be, well, dumb. As was first evidenced in a series of GEICO commercials (okay, that was too easy), a new paper published in the science journal PLOS One suggests that the basis upon which we assumed that Neanderthals were dimwitted and unimaginative oafs is completely without merit and that there is plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise.
The idea that Neanderthals were cognitively inferior to humans was forged in the effort to explain their disappearance about 40,000 years ago. Traditional theory holds that they were evolutionarily bested by “anatomically modern” humans who had more collaborative hunting techniques and were ready to eat a wider variety of food. There has also been an omnipresent theory that Neanderthals were largely without art and true culture. Paola Villa of CU Boulder and Will Roebroeks of Leiden University found that there is no archeological evidence to support any of these claims.
The skulls of Homo neanderthalensis (left) and Homo sapiens sapiens (right). (Sabena Jane Blackbird/Alamy)
The archeological evidence available suggests that Neanderthal hunting tactics were just as sophisticated as those of the humans who lived at the same time. There are signs that Neanderthals systematically herded hundreds of bison into a sinkhole in France and that they drove mammoths and wooly rhinos into a deep ravine of death in the Channel Islands (the English ones). Both of these sites point to large scale collaborative hunting techniques that would have required sophisticated communication, i.e., more than burps and grunts. Could you and a group of your “anatomically modern” humans team up and take down a mammoth with sticks and rocks? Didn’t think so.
The unvaried diet theory doesn’t have much to stand on either. Far from sticking to solely to the Ted Nugent kill-it-and-grill-it diet, microfossils in Neanderthal teeth indicate that acorns, grass seeds, and wild olives were regularly on the menu. With that many bizarre sources of natural nutrition, it seems they were even as advanced as your pretentious vegan friend.
Even the idea of the art-less Neanderthal has some cracks in it. In addition to small ornaments that had no practical purpose, researchers have also found red ochre (a natural pigment used for painting) at Neanderthal sites. These materials suggest artistic ability and could even mean they held cultural rituals.
The range H. neanderthalensis. (Wikipedia)
OK, so now we know that Neanderthals might not have been as dumb as once thought. But if it wasn’t death by denseness, then what did kill them off? Some think there was plenty of interbreeding between Neanderthals and humans, and that the resulting male children would have been less than perfectly fertile. Others think the small sizes of their communities contributed to their decline. But the debate still rages as to where the Neanderthals went, so tell us what you think in the comment section below.