Neanderthals were not stupid

Neanderthals probably weren't stupid
Neanderthals probably weren't stupid

It has long been thought that one of the reason Homo sapiens eventually dominated the hominid line, colonizing Africa and Europe beginning at around 40,000 years ago and eradicating or out-competing the Neanderthals, was that they were technologically advantaged. The idea was that because H. sapiens had better stone tool technologies, they had the edge, so to speak, on their Neanderthal cousins who already occupied the lands H. sapiens were migrating into.

This sort of explanation, perhaps, is easily believed whether one wants to accept it or not since H. sapiens are us and we do, after all, have a not-so-proud history of simply taking the lands we need from those less advanced or capable.

The Dim-Witted Cave Man?

I ♥ My ♣
I ♥ My ♣

It’s also been a common preconception that Neanderthals = “cave men,” which carries the cultural connotation of being stupid or of diminished wit, bringing to mind the humorous television commercials produced by Geico and the thousands of magazine and newspaper cartoons over the years that depicted cave men in various antics, the most prevalent theme being, perhaps, clubbing a cave woman over the head and taking her home.

However, new information has come to light with a study published today in the Journal of Human Evolution in which researchers in experimental archaeology spent three years producing flakes, stone tools created through the process of flintknapping in which cores of stone are shaped through percussion and pressure to manufacture tools like blades, axes, scrapers, and points.

The production of three years worth of flakes and blades, the former used by Neanderthals and the latter by Homo sapiens, allowed the researchers to gather statistical data on the quantities of tools, amounts of produced cutting-edges, durability of cutting-edges, and efficiency of the tools. The empirical data allowed the researchers to conclude that the difference in stone tool technology used by the H. sapiens vs. the Neanderthals offered no technological advantage.

The lead author of the paper in the J. of Human Evolution, Metin Eren of the University of Exeter, remarked:

Our research disputes a major pillar holding up the long-held assumption that Homo sapiens were more advanced than Neanderthals. It is time for archaeologists to start searching for other reasons why Neanderthals became extinct while our ancestors survived. Technologically speaking, there is no clear advantage of one tool over the other. When we think of Neanderthals, we need to stop thinking in terms of ‘stupid’ or ‘less advanced’ and more in terms of ‘different.’

The University of Exeter in the U.K. offers the only degree in Experimental Archaeology in the world. The other researchers on the project were from Southern Methodist University and Texas State University as well as the Think Computer Corporation.

I’ve been watching for the article, but it doesn’t seem to have made it to online publication just yet even though it’s slated for today. It’ll be interesting to see just what, specifically, the differences are between cutting edges of flakes versus blades.

Regardless, this sort of research is always great since it eliminates assumptions, which, when wrong, are bad since they lead archaologists down the wrong path. If blade technology wasn’t the clear advantage H. sapiens had over Neanderthals, then the question becomes, “what, then, caused the Neanderthals to go extinct and why were H. sapiens more adapted to deal it? Or could H. sapiens simply not have faced the same pressures at all?”

About Carl Feagans 312 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.