Our culture, rather than any genetic advantage, may have enabled us to displace the Neanderthals. rdonar/Shutterstock

Our culture, rather than intrinsic capacities, may have been what allowed modern humans to claim Europe and Asia from the Neanderthals. The theory is hard to prove, but mathematical modeling suggests it is credible, raising interesting questions about our defining features as a species.

When our ancestors spread out from Africa roughly 60,000 years ago, those that moved north faced a daunting threat. Homo neanderthalensis had been in Europe and parts of Asia for approximately 200,000 years. They were physically stronger and better adapted to the harsh Ice Age conditions. So how is it that within 5,000 years they were extinct, their legacy merely the tiny portion of the human genome we inherited from them through rare cases of interbreeding?

Stanford University doctoral student William Gilpin has argued that even the small cultural advantages modern humans brought with them from Africa would have allowed the new arrivals to out-compete the Neanderthals. Victory probably did not come in battle, but through a greater capacity to use the limited resources available at northern latitudes during the Ice Age.

At one time, it was assumed that survival meant our ancestors were more intelligent than the other species of humans they encountered. However, the large brain size of the Neanderthals calls this into question. Certainly their use of tools indicates they were far from the stupid half-apes of popular culture.

On the face of it, Neanderthals had it all over modern humans, at least in cold climates. Nicolas Primola/Shutterstock

Some theories hold that our arrival was coincidental to the disappearance of the Neanderthals, blaming climate change or disease instead. However, the coincidence of timing appears too great for these ideas to have been widely accepted. Consequently, archaeologists have suggested that early humans must have won as a result of cultural advances, possibly resulting from the wider range of climates and conditions humans had experienced.

The same was likely true of our success compared to other extinct human species, such as the Denisovans

Gilpin and his co-authors set out to create models to see whether this could have worked. “We investigate the conditions under which a difference in culture level between cognitively equivalent species, or alternatively a difference in underlying learning ability, may produce competitive exclusion of a comparatively (although not absolutely) large local Neanderthal population by an initially smaller modern human population,” they write in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

By modeling the arrival of a small, but more culturally advanced, group and allowing that group's culture to develop while the Neanderthals stagnated, the paper's authors attempted to put numbers on the way competition between the two species would have occurred.

The modeling does not specify what it was about modern human culture that gave our ancestors an advantage over Neanderthals. Instead, it shows that any superiority, be it in tools, clothing or even the way tribes structured themselves, could have allowed humans to thrive, eventually displacing the once more numerous Neanderthals even in their heartlands.

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