Did Neandertals Lack Smarts to Survive?

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
March 6, 2003
Scientists have been pondering the question posed by the Neandertals—who were they, and what happened to them—since the first fossil remains were found in Germany's Neander Valley in 1856.

By combining what can be told by fossils and artifacts with what has been learned by geneticists, we're getting closer to answering those questions, said Richard Klein, a paleoanthropologist at Stanford University, California.

As little as a decade ago, the idea that humans and Neandertals interbred was considered a possibility. Today, genetic evidence indicates fairly conclusively that Neandertals were the immediate predecessors—but not ancestors—of modern humans.

"Neandertals evolved exclusively in Europe, while modern humans were evolving in Africa," said Klein. "Modern humans replaced the Neandertals with little or no gene exchange."

And it's time we gave the Neandertals the respect they deserve, said Ian Tattersal, a paleoanthropologist and curator of the division of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

"Until we stop thinking of Neandertals as a bush-league version of ourselves, thinking of them as Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, we'll never dignify them in an appropriate way as an evolutionary entity in their own right, with their own evolutionary history," he said. "Neandertals did very well for hundreds of thousands of years, and were very adaptable. They probably did the maximum that could be done with intuitive thinking. I just don't think they had the ability to think symbolically."

By 130,000 years ago, the Neandertals were living in Europe in isolated pockets that extended from Spain to western Russia, and Homo sapiens were living in Africa. While early humans probably made a few forays out of Africa prior to about 50,000 years ago, they didn't successfully begin to colonize Europe until around 45,000 years ago.

When they did, Neandertals start disappearing from the fossil record. By 30,000 years ago, they were extinct. The question for paleoanthropologists has always been why? What was the competitive advantage wielded by modern humans that allowed us to thrive? Neandertal brains were the same size or possibly slightly larger than ours. Physically, they were far more robust.

The human ability to think symbolically—to plan ahead, innovate, and adapt to changing conditions and environments is likely the advantage humans had.

Two Cultures

Until about 50,000 years ago, Neandertals in Europe and humans in Africa shared many cultural traits. Both had full control of fire, diets heavily based on meat, and the ability to flake stone to make tools. Both groups buried their dead, at least occasionally, and took care of their injured.

But the gap between the two cultures widened rapidly during the roughly 15,000 years that humans, colloquially known as Cro-Magnons after the place in France where the first fossils were found, and Neandertals coexisted in Europe, said Klein.

Cro-Magnons learned to exploit a wide range of available natural resources, using bone, ivory, antlers, and shells, while the Neandertals confined themselves to stone. Cro-Magnons developed weapons that could be thrown, making hunting large animals less dangerous. The Neandertal tool kit never evolved, requiring them to get right up next to their prey in order to kill it.

Humans also began exhibiting symbolic behavior like cave painting, and created jewelry, which is associated with a show of status or group identity.

So what gave us the advantage, and what happened to the Neandertals?

Klein, writing in the March 6 issue of the journal Science, argues that a change in brain function in modern humans occurred about 50,000 years ago, giving us the ability to survive, while the Neandertals did not. He points to the recent discovery of the FOXP2 gene and its relationship to language.

"The FOXP2 gene is the first indication we've had that there might be a genetic basis for modern cognition. All humans have the gene, and it can't vary," he said. "So far only one family in Great Britain has been found with a variation of the gene, and they have great difficulties with speech."

Others argue that modern humans evolved with the necessary brain power, but it took time to develop the skills needed to expand out of Africa.

"I think the roots of modern behavior go much deeper in Africa, to at least 100,000 years, and that there was a more gradual development of our abilities," said Chris Stringer, director of the Human Origins program at the Natural History Museum in London.

Pushed to Extinction

There seems little doubt that humans had at least something to do with the extinction of the Neandertals, but to what extent is unknown.

"The only thing different in the fossil record is the arrival of humans," said Tattersal. "Before that, the Neandertals had been through good times and bad, warm weather and cold, and survived just fine."

There may have been some conflict between the two cultures. But in the long run, humans were simply more populous, better armed, and better able to exploit natural resources, said Klein.

"The first evidence for fishing comes with the Cro-Magnons," said Klein. "Here was a tremendous resource that was readily available, but the Neandertals were never able to exploit it. When the two groups came into contact and began competing for the same resources, humans were better armed, there were more of them, and they had more sophisticated hunting and gathering skills. Given this, it was only a matter of time."

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Additional National Geographic Resources
Interactive Feature: Outpost: In Search of Human Origins
National Geographic magazine online: Who Were the First Americans?


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