Plants and Animals

Neanderthals May Not Have Been as Inferior as Suggested

May 1, 2014 | by Lisa Winter

Photo credit: Erich Ferdinand

When Neanderthals went extinct about 40,000 years ago, Homo sapiens became the last remaining human species on Earth. The story frequently goes that they were inferior in a variety of ways to anatomically modern humans and just couldn’t compete. A new study turns this notion on its head and highlights a series of ways that Neanderthals were actually superior. The analysis was conducted by Paola Villa of the University of Colorado Museum and Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University. The results were published in PLOS ONE.

"The evidence for cognitive inferiority is simply not there," Villa said in a press release. "What we are saying is that the conventional view of Neanderthals is not true."

Their analysis looked at the top hypotheses for why our species beat out Neanderthals. After all, there is evidence that we interacted and and even interbred with them, so how did we succeed when they did not? Most of the ideas centered around the inferiority of Neanderthals in terms of cognition, technology, language, and hunting.

What they discovered, however, is that there isn’t evidence to support those explanations. There is evidence, they explain, that Neanderthals hunted in groups, and used cliffs and other features of the landscape to hunt large animals. This speaks to their ability to effectively plan, communicate, and cooperate as a group. Other evidence has shown that they ate a wide variety of foods, dismissing the idea that a narrow diet wiped them out as food sources changed. 

The researchers note that some of these predictions of why Neanderthals went extinct was due to an error of comparing Neanderthals to the Homo sapiens of today, and not the Homo sapiens that would have been contemporary to them. 

"Researchers were comparing Neanderthals not to their contemporaries on other continents but to their successors," Villa explained. "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."

While the researchers made a good case that general inferiority to Homo sapiens wasn’t the cause for the disappearance of the Neanderthals, they weren’t able to come up with an evidence-based explanation. They state there were probably several reasons that went into play, such as genetic depression due to inbreeding, as many Neanderthals lived in small groups. The male offspring between Neanderthal/Homo sapiens pairings are also believed to have a lower fertility, making it difficult to sustain the species.

[Main image by Erich Ferdinand used in accordance with CC BY 2.0]

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