Were Neanderthals Smarter Than Us? Update 26th August 2008

The recent publication of DNA analysis of Neanderthal bones from Europe caused me to write a brief article on this. There’s a number of reasons why the idea might sound unlikely.

Firstly humans survived and neanderthals didn’t – so we won the evolutionary race – right? Well not necessarily, particularly if we were running different races e.g. different environmental conditions.

Secondly humans had a more advanced culture at that time that they coexisted with Neanderthals – In terms of art, that certainly seemed to be the case. However, firstly we might say that culture is surely a function of numbers. The more people there are, the more likely someone is to come up with something that others can utilise (perhaps). Another reason why this might not hold is that Neanderthals just weren’t interested in these aspects of culture. More on this later.

Thirdly language – humans had language. However recent evidence shows the Neanderthals had the Fox-2 gene which is involved in speech production and there are some suggestions that they used a musical language.

Fourthly what exactly is smartness – this is a more interesting question. Even within our society this question is raised. Is a nuclear physicist smarter than a cook? Surely they use different skills and their creations are in different areas – a case of comparing apples and oranges. If we said that Neanderthals had never come up with theories of gravity or motion it would be very difficult to challenge that notion.

We could however say that being smart is about mastering the environment. If we talk about mastering the environment, we can see how the physicist and chef choose their environments and begin the long journey of creation within that environment – years of experimentation with helium at very low temperatures to produce a new state of matter or a lifetime continually refining the recipe for a dish and preparing it in an evening for a large gathering.

So if being smart is about mastering the environment, we can say that the Neanderthal’s even with perilously small numbers of them in existence at any one time – perhaps 10,000, were sufficiently able to master their environment to survive for 600,000 years.

Now returning to the issue of culture, New research has shown that Neanderthals tools were perhaps more efficient and durable than comparative tools used by homo sapiens at the same time (I couldn’t find the reference in the journal although there is a description here – perhaps it is due to appear in the next issue) If this is correct, then it may suggest an analogy with the Spartans, whose society was geared heavily towards military pursuits almost to the exclusion of other cultural pursuits.

There is also some previous research showing that Neanderthals were not anatomically suited to long distances perhaps explaining why they ultimately became extinct despite surviving several ice ages. Finally there is also some evidence that the first modern homo sapiens had neanderthal traits.

The debate about Neanderthal intelligence will undoubtedly continue.


The comments made here represent the opinions of the author and do not represent the profession or any body/organisation. The comments made here are not meant as a source of medical advice and those seeking medical advice are advised to consult with their own doctor.


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