From Our 2008 Archives

Tools Test Debunks 'Dumb Neanderthals' Theory

By E.J. Mundell
HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Aug. 26 (HealthDay News) — Homo sapiens' long-extinct cousins, the Neanderthals, weren't the slow-witted losers in the evolutionary race they've been made out to be, new research suggests.

The finding comes after scientists used Stone Age methods to recreate and use the respective flint tools favored by each species.

"In contradiction to a 60-year assumption in archaeology, we've managed to show that Neanderthal stone tool technologies are no less efficient [in a number of respects] than Homo sapiens' stone tool technologies. This suggests that Neanderthals did not go extinct because of inferior intellect or technology," said study author Metin I. Eren, a graduate student in archaeology at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, and in anthropology at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas.

His team published its findings in the Aug. 26 issue of the Journal of Human Evolution.

"I think this [study] is very important, in that it is helping move Neanderthals out of that dark box that they have traditionally been confined to," said Jeffrey Laitman, an anthropologist and director of anatomy at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in New York City. "They are not just dumb, limited versions of ourselves, but highly advanced, very intelligent cousins. Different does not mean inferior."

The Neanderthals evolved in Ice Age Europe and are believed to have been a distinct species from Homo sapiens, who evolved in Africa and only later spread northward about 40,000 to 50,000 years ago.

To survive in the cold European climate, Neanderthals evolved to be stockier and more robust than modern humans; they also had slightly larger brains, bony ridges over their eyes, flattened, elongated skulls and larger noses. The last Neanderthals died out about 28,000 years ago, and experts believe there was a 10,000-year period where both species co-existed in Europe.

But why did the Neanderthals disappear? For most of the history of modern anthropology, experts have assumed that Neanderthals were simply outsmarted by the newcomers arriving out of Africa.

"There's been a longstanding historical bias against the Neanderthals, in any number of categories — technological prowess, hunting prowess, intelligence, reproductive abilities and success," said one expert in Neanderthal culture, Daniel Adler, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Connecticut. "The roots of this go back to the nineteenth century, and it's taken us a long time to shake this bias," he said.

Over the past few decades, however, the pendulum has swung back in favor of the Neanderthals, and numerous studies, including Eren's, "have put a whole bunch of nails in the coffin of this idea," Adler said.

In their study, Eren's team used a process called flint knapping to create stone tools, just as Neanderthals or Homo sapiens would have done tens of thousands of years ago. "Flint knapping is essentially chipping or flaking certain types of stone — flint, chert, obsidian — that have predictable fracture patterns," Eren explained.

At about the time Neanderthals went extinct, they favored a broader stone tool archaeologists have called a "flake." On the other hand, Homo sapiens of the time were busy creating a narrower tool, dubbed the "blade." For most of the 20th century, anthropologists assumed that the blade was a technological advance over the Neanderthals' flake.

"This assumption was published in all the textbooks but has never been tested thoroughly," Eren said. Therefore, his team decided to create both tools from scratch and then pit the flake against the blade in terms of efficiency and utility.

The result: No clear winner. In fact, in some instances, the Neanderthals' flake worked slightly better than the Homo sapiens' blade, Eren said.

So, the "intellectual advantage" theory of why modern humans survived and Neanderthals did not has taken yet another blow, the experts said.

Adler pointed out that, for a period of time much earlier in their history, Neanderthals and even pre-Neanderthals had also used "blades," so the technology certainly wasn't new to them. "In fact, I just started excavating a site in Armenia this summer that has blades from 200,000-400,000 years ago," he said.

However, it's possible that sharing a distinct type of tool might have served a social purpose that gave Homo sapiens a survival edge, Eren said. He theorizes that the shared "blade" technology may have drawn the species together culturally into larger and more cohesive groups. It's well known that, by the time of the Neanderthals' demise, Homo sapiens greatly outnumbered Neanderthals in Europe. In fact, even at their peak population, fewer than 10,000 Neanderthals lived across the whole of Europe and Central Asia, Adler said.

"It is [also] hypothesized, sometimes, that the reproduction levels of Homo sapiens were much higher than that of Neanderthals," Eren noted. "This might have resulted in Homo sapiens simply outpopulating the Neanderthals out of existence."

SOURCES: Metin I. Eren, graduate student, department of archaeology, University of Exeter, U.K., and research associate, department of anthropology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas; Jeffrey Laitman, Ph.D., professor and director, anatomy, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York City; Daniel Adler, Ph.D., department of anthropology, University of Connecticut, Storrs; Aug. 26, 2008, Journal of Human Evolution, online

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