Gap Between Neanderthals and Us Narrows, But Does Not Close

Were the Neanderthals evolutionary also-rans—or just like modern humans?

Some researchers have come to the conclusion that there were no strong behavioral differences between Neanderthals (reconstruction above) and modern humans.


Neanderthals have traditionally been viewed as human evolution's also-rans. Yes, they had brains as big as ours, made fairly complex stone tools, and flourished across a huge expanse of Eurasia for nearly 300,000 years. But they vanished, while our ancestors not only survived but also took over the planet.

This discrepancy has led scientists for decades to try to pinpoint what specific inadequacy led to the Neanderthal's demise—or, put the other way around, what special property it is that makes us fully human and them not quite ... enough. Was it complex language that they lacked? Hunting prowess? The capacity to innovate?

In a recent paper in the journal PLOS One, Paola Villa of the University of Colorado Museum in Boulder and Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University in the Netherlands review the archaeological evidence for these and other often-touted Neanderthal inferiorities. In every case, they find no evidence to support the contention that Neanderthals were any different than the modern human beings living in Africa and the Middle East at the same time. In Villa and Roebroeks' view, the Neanderthals never really went extinct at all. They are us—or at least they live on in the genomes of modern humans living outside Africa today. (See "Why Am I Neanderthal?")

Is this the last word on a debate that has gone on for decades? Unlikely. We asked paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London for his take. Long a leading authority on Neanderthals and the origins of modern humans, Stringer's most recent book is Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth.

Twenty years ago or so, the story of modern human origins seemed pretty simple: Homo sapiens arose in Africa and replaced everybody everywhere else including the Neanderthals, who went extinct. Can you briefly say what's changed to complicate that picture now?

My version is that we had our origins in Africa maybe 150,000-200,000 years ago; we came out of Africa about 60,000 years ago and replaced all the other groups living outside of Africa. Twenty years ago I would have said the interbreeding between us and them was insignificant. That was certainly wrong. We know now that there was interbreeding going on, at least on a small scale, not only between us and the Neanderthals, but also between us and the Denisovans, another form of archaic human known from DNA from a cave in Siberia. (Read "The Case of the Missing Ancestor" in National Geographic magazine.)

Paolo Villa and Wil Roebroeks argue that the Neanderthals weren't so much replaced as absorbed into the larger modern human population. Would you agree?

We know that the Neanderthals disappeared soon after modern humans came into western Europe over 40,000 years ago. We don't know exactly when the Denisovans disappeared, but after 40,000 years ago, only modern human fossils are known from eastern Asia. There was also a population of a very small human-like species on the island of Flores in Indonesia—often called "hobbits." It had been thought they were around until about 17,000 years ago, but unpublished evidence suggests they could have disappeared earlier, in which case the spread of modern humans might correlate with their demise.

I think I see where this is leading...

The common factor in all three disappearances is the arrival of modern humans. Villa and Roebroeks have been as fair as possible to the Neanderthals, and they've come to the conclusion that there were no strong behavioral differences between them and modern humans. But that isn't necessarily the whole story.

What parts are missing?

Well, even small differences in behavior could have been significant under the stressful conditions that prevailed much of the time for Neanderthals. For instance, we know that modern people had eyed sewing needles in Europe 35,000 years ago. If you have something like that, you can make tailored clothing, or a tent covered with sewn hides, and you get better insulation. You can keep your babies warm more reliably, which is absolutely critical for the survival of the next generation. I'm sure the Neanderthals had some kind of clothing—it would have been essential in Ice Age Europe. But having a sewing needle could make a big difference.

What about art?

Neither the Neanderthals nor the moderns in Africa had representational art before 60,000 years ago, so if we take that as the basis of comparison, there's no difference. But look 500

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