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Neanderthals Were Smarter Than You Think

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Neanderthals: Smart or Not?

For 300,000 years, Neanderthals lived in Europe. That’s 200,000 years longer than we members of homo sapiens have been around. They were not the brutish thugs whose only language was a few grunts of the popular imagination. How could they have survived without smarts?

This guy is probably pretty smart

This guy is probably pretty smart

Who Were Neanderthals?

Science says that homo sapiens and Neanderthals shared a common ancestor and both species are classified as humans. The two lineages split at least half a million years ago and perhaps further back than that.

Neanderthals evolved in Asia and Europe while our species evolved in Africa and migrated north and east. Evidence of the existence of Neanderthals shows they lived in places as far apart as Wales, Spain, the Middle East, and Siberia.

Pink shows the early Neanderthal range and blue the later areas of occupation

Pink shows the early Neanderthal range and blue the later areas of occupation

The two versions of humans lived side by side for a while and interbred. Professor Chris Springer of Britain’s Natural History Museum points out that “Genetic research shows that most people outside of Africa have about two percent DNA.”

Then, about 40,000 years ago, Neanderthal remains disappear from the fossil record. The extinction was gradual with the last of them hanging on until about 28,000 years ago.

One theory is that the small Neanderthal and isolated communities became so inbred that their intellectual capacities diminished. This meant that they lacked the intelligence to adapt to the temperature changes, such as ice ages, that are a feature of the planet’s long-term climate.

Perhaps through interbreeding with homo sapiens they were simply swamped out of existence with their more numerous cousins.

It’s possible that they were out-competed for resources by the arrival of homo sapiens.

But, nobody knows for sure why they vanished. Although, given the presence of their DNA in modern humans, means that small remnants Neanderthals are still with us.

Homo sapiens (left) and homo neanderthalensis as they might have looked when they co-existed in Europe

Homo sapiens (left) and homo neanderthalensis as they might have looked when they co-existed in Europe

Neanderthal Lifestyle

Caves come to mind, of course, and some Neanderthals did live in caves, but so did early members of our tribe. Neanderthals lived in small clusters that were largely isolated from one another.

They were not stupid; they actually had larger brains than modern humans in proportion to their body size. So, calling someone a Neanderthal today is more of a compliment than an insult.

They understood how to make bone and flint tools and weapons that were able to bring down mammoths and other large animals. And, once they carved some nice steaks off the downed beast, they knew how to create fire to cook them. They also ate vegetables, fruit, and nuts.

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“Archaeological evidence shows that some Neanderthals looked after their sick and buried their dead, which suggests they were social and even compassionate beings” (Lisa Hendry, Natural History Museum).

The vocal anatomy of Neanderthals is similar to ours although it’s thought their vocabulary was much simpler. This is conjecture drawn from the evidence that they had fairly complex social groupings, so verbal interaction was very likely to have taken place.

The Last Neanderthals

Gorham’s cave on Gibraltar is a place of great interest. It was occupied by Neanderthals for, probably, 100,000 years and has been the site of archaeological digs for many years. According to dating evidence, it was probably the last redoubt of homo neanderthalensis.

Clive Finlayson is the director of archaeology at the Gibraltar museum and has been leading excavations at Gorham’s cave. He says his team has found the remains of 150 different bird species, many with cut marks on their wing bones. What does this mean?

Dr. Finlayson theorizes that the Gorham cave Neanderthals separated the wings of large birds such as vultures to make capes that they placed over their shoulders. They also made crude jewelry and some cave paintings have been attributed to them.

That they would have the cognitive skills to make such cultural artifacts, according to the BBC, shows that they possessed “one of the defining traits of humanity.” This places the Neanderthal society of 40,000 years ago on a par with that of homo sapiens at the time.

We are now at a turning point where we should consider that Neanderthals and contemporaneous modern humans were equal in many domains.”

Professor Marie Soressi, Leiden University

Neanderthals Taught Our Ancestors

Marie Soressi of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands has been studying ancient bone tools. She and her team have found bone tools at Neanderthal habitations that have also turned up at sites where only our human ancestors lived.

The thinking goes that Neanderthals taught homo sapiens how to make and use these tools, some of which were used to soften animal skins so they could be made into clothes. Our out-of-Africa ancestors had no need for clothes until they reached the cooler climate of Europe. That means their survival depended on learning skills from Neanderthals.

Did Neanderthals unwittingly teach the species that would replace them how to endure and prosper at their own expense?

Bonus Factoids

  • In 1856, some men working in a quarry in Europe found parts of what appeared to be human skeletons. The bones were identified as belonging to a previously unknown human species. The quarry where these relics were found was in the Neander Valley in what is now central Germany. Hence the name.
  • The life expectancy of Neanderthals was about 30 years.
  • Recent research has uncovered stone tools on some Greek islands that pre-date the occupation by modern humans. This suggests that Neanderthals had sailed or paddled to these locations.


  • “Who were the Neanderthals?” Lisa Hendry, Natural History Museum, May 5, 2018.
  • “How Did the Last Neanderthals Live?” Melissa Hogenboom, BBC, January 29, 2020.
  • “Micro-Biomechanics of the Kebara 2 Hyoid and Its Implications for Speech in Neanderthals.” Ruggero D’Anastasio, et al., PLOS 1, December 18, 2013.
  • “Why Am I Neanderthal?” National Geographic, undated.
  • “Neanderthals: Facts About Our Extinct Human Relatives.” Jessie Szalay, Live Science, December 21, 2017.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor


Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on March 22, 2020:

Hello Taylor, I had not quoted Finis J. Dake in my comment. In. Gen.5:26-27. "Methusaleh lived seven hundred eighty and two years. And all the days of Methusaleh were nine hundred sixty and nine years: and he died." These words are from God the creator. Verse 31 same book tells us that Lamech lived up to 777-years. Read also verse 17. In Gen. 6:3 man's natural longivity was reduced to a minimum of 120-years due to too much wickedness. Am I quoting Finis Dake? No. Many faithful minirters can err. Dake goes too far. Thank you.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on March 21, 2020:

Miebakagh. Where is the evidence that humans lived between 800 and 900 years "back then?" There is absolutely none.

You can quote Finis Dake (a man convicted of taking an underage girl to three motels "for the purpose of debauchery and other immoral practices") if you wish. I prefer to go where the scientific evidence leads us.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on March 21, 2020:

Hello Taylor, the record you got put the life limit of the neanthal man at 30. But humans live over 800 to 900 back then. Then it comes down to between 60 and 70. Man's desire to live longer push it up at present. Thanks to medicine. When pre-historical man is being discuse, historians, scientists, archealogists, and others rarely took the creator and his word into account. Author Finis Dakes clearly points that they was not a lnk between we human, the homo, and the neanthal. Thank you and enjoy the day.

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