New Research Says Neanderthals Not Inferior to Human Counterparts
New archeological data is giving a new reason for the Geico Insurance cave man to celebrate.
An extensive review of recent Neanderthal studies by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder has concluded that evidence does not support the longstanding opinion that Neanderthals were less advanced than anatomically modern humans.
The findings, based on work by Boulder researcher Paola Villa and co-author Wil Roebroeks, an archaeologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, have been published in the journal PLOS ONE.
It's been a widely held belief that Neanderthals -- who thrived in a large region that covered Europe and Asia between about 350,000 and 40,000 years ago but disappeared after a group referred to as "anatomically modern humans" crossed into Europe from Africa -- were dimwitted and inferior in intelligence, and that's why they were driven to extinction.
That notion follows the new humans were superior to Neanderthals in several key ways, including the ability to hunt, communicate, innovate and adapt to different environments.
Now, "what we are saying is that the conventional view of Neanderthals is not true," said Villa, a curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History. "The evidence for cognitive inferiority is simply not there."
Villa and Roebroeks focused on nearly a dozen common explanations for Neanderthal based largely on the idea that the Neanderthals were anatomically inferior to modern humans, which limited their reasoning and communication skills, kept them from becoming more effective hunters and prevented them from drawing sustenance from the wider diet the digestive tracks of modern humans were able to handle.
The researchers found none of such hypotheses were supported by the available research, which instead demonstrated Neanderthals hunted and communicated as a group, and had were able to make efficient use of their surroundings to help them accomplish their goals, the study authors said.
Added archaeological evidence discovered at Neanderthal sites suggested the species had a diverse diet that included wild peas, acorns, pistachios, grass seeds, wild olives, pine nuts and date palms, subject to what gatherers could find locally.
Also found at sites inhabited by Neanderthals was ochre, a kind of earth pigment, that may well have been used for body painting.
The discovery of ornaments at the sites, considered with the ochre findings, seem to indicate Neanderthals had cultural rituals and symbolic communication for which they painted and decorated themselves,
Villa and Roebroeks suspect there was a tendency among previous researchers to compare Neanderthals, who lived in the Middle Paleolithic, to modern humans living during the more-technologically-advanced Upper Paleolithic period.
"Researchers were comparing Neanderthals not to their contemporaries on other continents but to their successors," Villa said. "It would be like comparing the performance of Model T Fords, widely used in America and Europe in the early part of the last century, to the performance of a modern-day Ferrari and conclude that Henry Ford was cognitively inferior to Enzo Ferrari."
The researchers argue that the real reason for Neanderthals' extinction was complex, although there is significant reason to think anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals interbred and, as a result, the male offspring suffered reduced fertility.
Other studies suggest Neanderthals lived in small, rather isolated groups, and were possibly eventually overwhelmed and assimilated by increasing numbers of modern human immigrants.
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