May 01, 2014

In defense of Neandertals

Here is an article that could very well be included in John Hawks' impressive collection of Neandertal anti-defamation files.

I am personally rather disinclined to accept the theory of Neandertal inferiority (or its correlate, that modern humans must have had some genetic adaptation that made them superior and facilitated their success). The main reason for leaning in this direction is that history abounds in examples of vanquished and marginalized peoples and it's hard to argue that this was due to any superiority of the people that replaced them. In ancient times all it took was a bad commander in war or getting a vital piece of military tech too late and a whole nation might be destroyed. Or, more simply one might find themselves on the wrong side of the numbers game and big groups of people tend to replace smaller ones even if individual members of big and small groups are not particulary different in any measurable way.

PLoS ONE 9(4): e96424. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0096424

Neandertal Demise: An Archaeological Analysis of the Modern Human Superiority Complex

Paola Villa, Wil Roebroeks

Neandertals are the best-studied of all extinct hominins, with a rich fossil record sampling hundreds of individuals, roughly dating from between 350,000 and 40,000 years ago. Their distinct fossil remains have been retrieved from Portugal in the west to the Altai area in central Asia in the east and from below the waters of the North Sea in the north to a series of caves in Israel in the south. Having thrived in Eurasia for more than 300,000 years, Neandertals vanished from the record around 40,000 years ago, when modern humans entered Europe. 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 Neandertals. This systematic review of the archaeological records of Neandertals and their modern human contemporaries finds no support for such interpretations, as the Neandertal archaeological record is not different enough to explain the demise in terms of inferiority in archaeologically visible domains. Instead, current genetic data suggest that complex processes of interbreeding and assimilation may have been responsible for the disappearance of the specific Neandertal morphology from the fossil record.



Grey said...

I wonder about differences in physical size. If the two populations engaged in bride swapping would the smaller females have more birthing problems?

Fiend of 9 worlds said...

Good to see them get some love.

I am sure that simply have ten times the numbers has been deciding factor in a whole lot of conflicts as well.

eurologist said...

I think it is pretty clear that there were significant differences between them. I see few, if any, cognitive advances between heidelbergensis (~800,000 - 350,000 ya) and later Neanderthals. On the flip side, the gradual advance of AMHs from heidelbergensis to the UP has been demonstrated extremely well.

Neanderthal sites, until contact with AMHs, are messy, with little physical separation between butchering, tool-making, sleeping, cooking, and defecation areas. Use of symbolic presentations is also almost non-existent until that contact; use of musical instruments, unlike UP AMHs, is unheard of.

On the flip side, I do believe Neanderthals gave significant cognitive genetic contributions to AMHs. Perhaps items related to patience, perseverance, contemplation, self-reflection, intuition, imagination - but also perhaps dysfunctions like OCD or Asperger's that in mild forms and/ or at sparse occurrence definitely have a group benefit.

DrCavemanPhd said...

Great blog. I used to come here from time to time, from Evo&Proud.

About Neandertals, it's weird because I had exactly the same thinking, I imagined them like day dreamers, perhaps introvert people with lots of intuition and existential questions that they however were incapable to translate into symbolic language.
Perhaps they were visual thinkers instead.
It's actually very hard to figure out what they looked like, say in Europe, because it seems that theories oscillate every 10 years between the typical prehistoric brute living in a cave, and an almost modern human that could barely be noticed if he walked among us.
Nobody knows for sure if they were naked but very furry, or had some cloths. And If they were furry, what color coat. Nobody mentioned how fat they must have been (to fight the cold), how long they lived, could they hibernate in winter, etc.

LivoniaG said...

There's really no evidence of any kind of warfare going on. We're not finding fields of Neandertals with spearheads in their chests.

The Neandertals being less adapt at warfare might have been the least of their problems. Disease could have reduced their ability to maintain population. Not only diseases that infected them -- that affected or did not affect humans-- but diseases that destroyed their food supply. Famine due to weather change or climate. The fact is that, for all we know, EVERYONE was wiped out in a broad geographic area except for a few modern humans.

agiering said...

It's studies like this that really make me question why we classify pre-upper paleo "anatomically modern humans" as part of our species, but consider Neanderthals a separate species/subspecies. Perhaps it's best to assume that, before ~40K years ago, there were lots of human subspecies running around, all somewhat different from our own, and that our "modern human" subspecies was a cocktail of these pre-upper paleo subspecies.

CPS said...

Villa and Roebroeks are critical of view that comparisons between the archaeological records of the African Middle Stone Age and European Middle Palaeolithic can be used to demonstrate that Neanderthals were ‘inferior’ to modern humans in terms of a wide range of cognitive and technological abilities, and have made a very good case.

However, they seem to be dismissive of the impact of what they describe as ‘subtle biological differences’ between Neanderthals and modern humans, which they state ‘tend to be overinterpreted’. They cite Pearce, Stringer and Dunbar (2013) as an example.

Pearce, Stringer and Dunbar used eye socket size as a proxy for the size of the eye itself and showed that Neanderthals had larger eyes than modern humans. This is not an unexpected result; living at high latitudes, Neanderthals experienced lower light levels than people living in the tropics, and larger eyes might have been an evolutionary response. The consequence is that in comparison to a modern human brain, a greater proportion of the Neanderthal brain might have needed to be dedicated to the visual cortex, with the trade-off that less was available for other cognitive functions.

On a less subtle level, it is only to be expected that the neural organisation of the Neanderthal brain would have differed from that of modern humans. The globular brain case of Homo sapiens differs from the long, low braincase that characterised archaic human species, including Neanderthals, and the change reflects a change in the actual proportions of the brain.

eurologist said...

"The consequence is that in comparison to a modern human brain, a greater proportion of the Neanderthal brain might have needed to be dedicated to the visual cortex, with the trade-off that less was available for other cognitive functions."


Sorry, this argument by the authors is so flawed it is hardly worthy of a scientific review comment.

Firstly, human eye and brain development are not "things" that change in conjunction significantly over 100,000 years, or so.

Secondly, there is a significant number of modern humans, particularly in the C-N and NW of Europe, that show similar features: Very large and widely-spaced eyes. No one argues that these people are intellectually disfavored. On the contrary, some statistics suggest a higher than average intellectual and artistic ability.

LivoniaG said...

Maybe the problem was that Neanderthals were just not promiscuous enough.
You can’t compete with people who breed like crazy, flush out all the game and eat all the wild berries.

Yeah, it certainly appears that Neanderthals had more than enough neo-cortex to handle modern human information processing.

The difficulty may have been with where they lived and how it affected their ability to reproduce. At this point in technological development, you are highly dependent on handed-down knowledge. You are not going to be able look up flint-knapping or how to make resins to mount points on handles in a book or on the web. You have to rely on what was learned in past generations. You can’t re-discover it every generation in every isolated group. Too inefficient.

From the Stringer interview:
“Keeping your numbers low is bad news... There are so many of us [modern humans], we are so well networked and have so many ways of storing information, that when something innovative appears, it takes root and gets built upon...You have small groups of people at times isolated from each other. That was certainly true of the Neanderthals. They lived in small groups and were not well networked. Under those circumstances, when your population crashes, you can lose cultural information.
Imagine a tribe of 30 Neanderthals, and there are two or three people who are specialists in making fire. Imagine a disease hits, or there's an accident, and those three firemakers die. Now no one in the group knows how to make fire. So until the group can reconnect to another Neanderthal group, they've lost that knowledge.
We see this in the modern hunter-gatherer groups who at times lose the knowledge of making fire at will, or the knowledge of making boats.”

CPS said...

Dear Eurologist

In response to your reply to my post -

Firstly, human eye and brain development are not "things" that change in conjunction significantly over 100,000 years, or so.

I’m sorry, but I don’t quite understand 1) your grounds for asserting this or 2) how it relates to the paper by Pearce, Stringer and Dunbar.

Secondly, there is a significant number of modern humans, particularly in the C-N and NW of Europe, that show similar features: Very large and widely-spaced eyes.

Pearce, Stringer and Dunbar argue that the Neanderthal eyeball size was outside the range for fossil AMH and their inferences were based on fossil remains. They did not consider present-day populations; figures these would have to be adjusted to take into account that they are less robust than fossil AMH.

My real point, in any case, is that while Villa and Roebroeks make an excellent case about the dangers of implying differences in cognition from the archaeological record of the MP and MSA, they are perhaps overly dismissive of other lines of enquiry. They cite the Pearce, Stringer and Dunbar paper as an example (albeit they do not dismiss it as so flawed it is hardly worthy of a scientific review). There is little doubt that the cranial morphology of AMH is more derived in relation to early Homo than is that of the Neanderthals, and it seems likely that this is related to a change in the relative proportions of the brain (but see Lieberman (2008) for other possibilities).

I wholly agree with those who say it is time to do away with the popular notion that the Neanderthals were dimwits, and I particularly dislike the all-too-common use of the term ‘Neanderthal’ as a pejorative.

However, it does not seem improbable that there are cognitive differences between Neanderthals and AMH, given they diverged from a common ancestor at least 370,000 years ago.

The biological differences between Neanderthals and AMH are real, and should be included within a holistic approach to understanding the cognitive abilities of the Neanderthals.


Chris Seddon (@Prehistory)

andrew said...


Some of the litmus tests for behavioral modernity not shared to any significant degree in Neanderthals (at least until the very end), like the use of bone tools, substantial resort to aquatic food sources, substantial resort to very small game as a food sources (e.g. bunnies and birds), and much greater evidence than Neanderthals for amounts of decorative and symbolic conduct all turn up at least as far back as 75kya, well before the Upper Paleolithic.


My take is that Neanderthals may very well had as much or more brain power as modern humans, but had brains that were probably more hard wired and less plastic than modern humans, and hence less capable of rapid cultural innovation. Modern humans develop significantly new archaeological cultures at rates 10x or more that of Neanderthals and 30x+ that of H. Erectus.

Now, "different" doesn't have to mean "superior" in the abstract. Chimpanzees and Bonobos are very closely related and have similar brain sizes and IQ, but behaviorally, it is hard to imagine two species more different. Even cat breeds less than 100 years old have distinctive genotype driven behavioral phenotypes that are part of their cognitive package.

An assumption that modern human and Neanderthal cognition and behavioral phenotype attributable to genotype were or more or less similar, overcompensates. We don't want to "defame" Neanderthals or underrate their intelligence, but that doesn't mean we have to assume that they were cognitively similar to modern humans or that modern humans didn't have an evolutionary fitness advantage of some type arising from those cognitive and behavioral phenotype differences in the particular circumstances and context where they became dominant while Neanderthals went extinct. Saying that modern humans were superior in fitness to Neanderthals in the context of Europe from ca. 42kya to 29kya during a period of competition between co-existing advanced hominin species is very different from saying that modern humans were superior to Neanderthals in general.

Neither Upper Paleolithic modern humans nor contemporaneous Neanderthals in Europe had a sufficiently large scale of social organization for the rise and fall of the respective species to the talents of particular generals or political leaders. When you have lots of small, relatively autonomous political units, the law of averages catches up with the influence of exceptional individuals very quickly.

Perhaps an apt comparison would be dolphins or octopi or large wildcats. All are quite smart and dolphins may have more brainpower than we do. But, all have been very culturally static. They behave now much the same way that they did hundreds of thousands of years ago. Lots of brain real estate that in dolphins, e.g., is hard wired to go to their sonar, in humans is designated "To Be Determined" in youth and early childhood.

Neanderthals may have been similar. They may have done the things that they specialized in, like large game hunting, better from a cognitive perspective than anyone in the range of modern human variation. They might very well have been "super soldiers" if some had survived to the present. But, may have been less well suited to learning new tricks.

agiering said...

@ Andrew

I'm not denying that there were likely behavioral differences between modern humans and Neanderthals. But why assume that "anatomically modern humans" 100 k years ago in Africa are the same as us, either? We don't even have their DNA to confirm even they are even partially ancestral to us (unlike Neanderthals). If multi regionalists of guilty of trying to whitewash the differences between humans and Neanderthals, Out-of-Africanists are guilty of whitewashing the differences between AMH and "behaviorally modern" humans.