Neanderthals Were Smarter Than You Think
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.
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.
The two versions of human 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 of still with us.
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.
“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 bird such as vultures to make capes that they placed over their shoulders. They also made crude jewellery and some cave paintings have been attributed to them.
That they would have the cognitive skills to make such cultural artefacts, according to the BBC, shows that they possessed “one of the defining traits of humanity.” This places 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?
- 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.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor