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Neanderthals Weren't Dumb

There's nothing in the fossil record or in archaeological finds that suggests Neanderthals were in any way inferior to modern humans of the time.
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Conventional wisdom—or at least popular opinion—suggests that, sometime roughly 30,000 years ago, modern humans and Neanderthals somehow had it out, with humans surviving and Neanderthals going extinct, aside from living on as a punchline in stupid Geico commercials. Turns out, there’s really very little evidence to suggest that Neanderthals were any less intelligent than humans of the time, and they likely died out due to a whole host of reasons (some of them known) that likely had nothing to do with humans being “better."

“Modern humans are usually seen as superior in a wide range of domains, including weaponry and subsistence strategies, which would have led to the demise of Neanderthals,” a new paper published in PLOS One says. “This systematic review of the archaeological records of Neanderthals and their modern human contemporaries finds no support for such interpretations, as the Neanderthal archaeological record is not different enough to explain the demise in terms of inferiority in archaeologically visible domains.”


According to the study, Neanderthals used language or at least had some form of communication, had an "organized use of space," advanced hunting capabilities, and the "capacity for innovation."

It’s not really clear where the idea that Neanderthals were dumb comes from, but it probably has something to do with that fact that we’re still here, they aren’t, and they totally didn’t invent the Internet, the selfie, or split the atom.

For a time, there was reason to suspect that maybe the idea of “dumb” Neanderthals was right. But that was basically because we weren’t smart enough ourselves to study them—until recently, we’ve had a very small sample size of fossils and archaeological sites to pull from, and we had no genetic data whatsoever. That’s different now.

“I wish we had a brain to study, but we don’t. In order to calculate or have any idea about the intelligence of hominids, we have to estimate it from their hunting methods and their technology,” Paola Villa, Colorado University-Boulder researcher and lead author of the study, told me. “We’ve had practically no evidence until recently that they had an advanced method of communicating.”

Short of de-extincting one, we'll never have a Neanderthal brain to study, but Villa says that recent archaeological discoveries suggest that Neanderthals coordinated in groups to hunt bison and wooly rhinoceroses and that they created jewelry and ornaments using animal teeth and eagle claws.


“That’s a form of communication. We also know they used pigments for markings and they created strong tools,” she said. “This suggests that, in that respect they were not inferior, that they were comparable to modern humans in Africa.” Neanderthals also had the morphological necessities for speech, though we aren’t sure if they developed an oral language.

So, if Neanderthals were not archaeologically inferior to modern humans (and theoretically roughly as intelligent), why are they extinct? That’s a difficult question to answer, but some recent genetic studies may help shed some light on at least some of the reasons. Most notably, we’re now pretty positive that humans and neanderthals interbred often, despite the fact that our DNA has many differences.

Researchers now think that males born from human-Neanderthal interbreeding may have been born sterile, which would have made it much more difficult for Neanderthals to continue passing on their genes. Instead, the genomes of Neanderthals may have simply been pushed into that of modern humans, which would explain why we eventually stop seeing Neanderthals in the fossil record.

“Interbreeding could have in fact led to a decline in the population of Neanderthals,” Villa said. “Eventually, they were assimilated by modern humans, where their genetic data still lives today.”

So, depending how you look at it, maybe Neanderthals aren’t quite extinct, after all. And they almost certainly weren’t dumb.