Did Neandertals Lack Smarts to Survive?

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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."

More Information About Human Origins

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When Did "Modern" Behavior Emerge in Humans?
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Fossil Implies Our Early Kin Lived in Trees, Study Says
Controversy Over Famed Ancient Skull: Ape or Human?
Skull Fossil Opens Window Into Early Period of Human Origins
Skull Fossil Challenges Out-of-Africa Theory
New Study Supports Idea That Primates, Dinosaurs Coexisted
Human Fossil Adds Fuel to Evolution Debate
Did Our Species Mate With Other Human Species?
Did Humans and Neandertals Battle for Control of the Middle East?
Killer Cats Hunted Human Ancestors
Adolescence Came Late in Human Evolution, Study Shows
Viewpoint: Is It Time to Revise the System of Scientific Naming?
African Bone Tools Dispute Key Idea About Human Evolution
Africa's Imperiled Rock Art Documented Before it Disappears
Bones, Tools Push Back Human Settlement in Arctic Region
Oldest Asian Tools Show Early Human Tolerance of Variable Climate
Telltale Face Betrays Neandertals as Non-Human
Fossils From Ethiopia May Be Earliest Human Ancestor
New Face Added to Humankind's Family Tree
Discoveries Breathe New Life into Human Origins Debate

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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