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 398 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.


  1. H. Sapiens also used flake-only techs in many places and probably Neanderthals also used blades at some point (Amoudian, later Chatelperronian too). It doesn’t seem this issue is truly central, except in the particular case of the colonization of Europe by people of Aurignacian culture.

    While it’s possible that Aurignacian tech particularly offered some advantages to our ancestors over Neanderthal-made Chatelperronian (or whatever other techs they used elsewhere), there are other possible reasons why H. sapiens became eventually advantaged over Neanderthals. These range from greater flexibility to exploit marginal resources by AMHs to high-mortality epydemics affecting the natives. The most thought-provoking explanation I have read though is that of Clive Gamble, who studied the spatial use of both species and concluded that Neanderthals used much smaller portions, maybe because H. sapiens had developed greater gender-based division of labor, allowing male hunters to exploit much wider areas without having to care for kids.

    It’s not that they were stupid, they surely were not, but it does seem that both species had different strategies, different behavioural patterns and possibly our ancestors showed greater versatility. Generalists, wide-range resource users normally win.

  2. For what it’s worth, there’s also an interesting article in the most recent National Geographic on this exact subject (the cover story even!). I’m assuming it’s a little dumbed down for us non-archaeologist types, but it’s got pretty pictures and is an interesting read.

  3. Neanderthal men and women were better adapted and were more inteligent than it’s relative Homo Sapiens.
    Neanderthal man was the ruling species for a long time. Much more time than Homo Sapiens has been in existence, and in much more difficult conditions.
    In my view, what called for the demise of the Neanderthal species was overcrowding by invading Homo Sapiens, which introduced viruses and bacterial infections to which the Neanderthals fell prey of.
    That is the only explanation why a dominant and succesfull species could disappear when an inferior one appears.
    Recently, Lions were almost wiped out from Africa after a dog virus was introduced ( Dystemper ). If a dog virus can attack a Lion, species that are closer in DNa like the Homo Sapiens and the Neanderthal man can easily go that route.
    We would had been better had the Neanderthal species been the ruling and surviving species. After hundreds of thousands of years, Neanderthals got along pretty well, they did not try to anyhilate each other, but Homo Sapiens, as we know, is a quarreling species, a destructive one, and while Neanderthals lived in harmony within their species for over 300,000 years, Homo Sapiens, with its 50,000 years of existence is already about to self destroy.
    Like the barbarians destroying the Roman empire ( all Homo Sapiens ) , the invading barbarian Homo Sapiens introduced desease, and also quarell into a peacefull Neanderthal world.
    Homo Sapiens is the inferior species, even the physical record shows Neanderthal man had a larger brain, stronger built, and “hundreds” of thousands of years in harmonic existence.
    Homo Sapiens took off only after the Neanderthal species dissappeared.

    • The idea of disease being a cause of the Neanderthal downfall is one that is interesting and certainly possible, but there just doesn’t seem to be any significant (if any) evidence for it. But that’s not surprising given the nature of the archaeological record and the difficulty with detecting disease in prehistory. There are a relative handful of diseases that are pathologically evident in bones and only a few bones (relatively) get preserved even poorly in the archaeological record. Perhaps, however, there might be some genetic markers that can be discovered as more an more DNA is gathered and understood.

      I would, however, take issue with your statement that “Neanderthal men and women were better adapted and were more inteligent than it’s relative [Homo sapiens].” This just doesn’t seem to be the case in light of several lines of evidence. Many people, when they learn that the Neanderthal brain was slightly larger than that of anatomically modern humans, associate their larger brains with larger intelligence. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The Neanderthal brain was on average 1200-1900 cc whereas the cranial capacity of anatomically modern humans is 1300-1500 cc. But one must consider cranial capacity in relation to body mass. Biologists have long used encephalization quotient as a rough estimate of the possible intelligence of an organism.

      The EQ of a resus monkey is 2.09 but the EQ of a much heavier, more massive whale is only 1.76. EQ is determined by dividing brain weight by 0.09908 (body weight)^0.76237. The EQ of an. modern humans is roughly 5.4 but the heavier neanderthal is about 4.8, noticeably different [1].

      But there exist several other lines of evidence (see my more recent article on Cognitive Science). Among them, and very hard to discount, is the evidence of technology. The technology that exists among human populations far exceeds that of the Neanderthal, showing abstract thought and planning that exceeds that of the Neanderthal. Stone tool technology alone showed significant differences between the two species with human tool kits including more specialized lithics such as burins and denticulated blades. It was also after the human populations dominated that art appears in the archaeological record. Cave paintings and figurines start appearing between 45,000 and 30,000 years ago, just after the demise of the Neanderthal.

      So,when you conclude that the only way a more “dominant and successful species could disappear” is through the introduction of “viruses and bacteria,” this argument fails because one of it’s premises is unsound. Namely that the Neanderthal was superior to humans in cognitive terms. They may have been, but the evidence is in favor of a superior human cognition (again, see my earlier article on Cognitive Archaeology).

      Finally, “Homo sapiens took off only after the Neanderthal species disappeared” is also an incorrect statement. Modern humans were doing quite well in Africa and the Levant (though they were displaced by Neanderthals at around 80,000 years ago in and around Israel and Jordan) going back to about 150,000 to 200,000 years ago.

      Thank your for commenting. I’d recommend authors like Erik Trinkhaus, Christopher Stinger, Colin Renfrew, and Richard G. Klein for further information. Its a very broad and complex line of study and your intuition is good, but intuition has to be tempered with data and evidence. I’m certainly not the expert on Neanderthal evolution, so I defer to the authors above for elucidation.

      1. See McHenry, H.M. (1994). Tempo and mode in human evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 91, pp. 6780-6786; and McHenry and Coffing (2000). Australopithecus to Homo: Transformations in body and mind. Annual Review of Anthropology, 29, pp. 125-146.

  4. Hi.
    English is my third language, so please excuse my writting. Practice and patience will make it happen.

    Thanks for taking the time to read my reply. Most of the time I comment on articles it seems I am a “lone ranger”, seems like I am the only one reading.

    The theory about desease bringing the Neanderthal people to its demise is the most plausible theory in my view.

    Other theories speak about hybridization, and others about full anyhilation at the hands of Homo Sapiens.

    I see no evidence of hybridization. For that to have happened, the evidence would be clearly visible, either in their physiques, or at least in the archeological record.

    I see no evidence of Neanderthal physical characteristics in any human race. Craneal shape, supra orbital crests, nose, clavicle lenght, rib cage shape, forearm proportions, thickness of bone walls, size of hands and feet, as well as thickness of said parts, size of joints, muscle mass and development ( as ascertained by muscle attachment points ) shape of the hip bones and ramus, etc, is not evident in extant human races.

    Not only that, but for any hybridization process to take place, there should had been co-existence of Neanderthal and H Sapiens in situ. No archeological site shows remains off both species at the same place, in the same geological time and physical location. All we find is separate quarters, never a single episode of cohabitation.

    For these two species to interbreed, the matings should had happened on numerous occassions, thousands of times, over a period of time this two species were contemporary. There would be remains of mixed individuals, and plenty of mixed bred individuals would had mated with other mixed bred and with fully H Sapiens and fully Neanderthals. The fosil and archeological record should evidence these array of posibilities. Unfortunately, until that happens, no evidence of hybridization exists.

    The genetic record as well excludes and precludes that hypothesis from coming to fruition.

    The theory of anyhilation of Neanderthals at the hands of H Sapiens is not been substantiated by the evidence. To butress such contention, the evidence should show mass graves, or neaderthal remains dump sites, with neanderthal bodies showing evidence of arrow injuries, beatings, and the like in a massive array, as if been victims of a genocidal attack by H Sapiens.

    We would also find remains of H Sapiens been attacked and injured in a retaliatory attack by Neanderthals. In fact, evidence on both sides of a war between both species would clearly show the results of such alledged grudge between these two contemporary species.

    Nothing of that sort has manifested in the record.

    I am inclined to believe that H Sapiens invaded the lands once belonging exclusively to Neanderthal peoples. H sapiens must have introduced disease ( like the case of europeans introducing chicken pox, german measles , mumps and other dieseases to the american natives )that cause pandemics amongst Neanderthal populations.

    Although stronger than H Sapiens, Neanderthals lived in harmony with its own species. Intra specific wars between Neanderthals was not the norm, evidence does not show the opposite. For many times as longwer as H Sapiens, Neaderthals lived and dominated the land, and time and again, rode the capricious weather changes and extremes the glacial periods brought in. Neanderthals proved to be inteligent beings, and part of that inteligence is long time adaptation to climate changes that were dramatic, and intra species cohesion.

    Tools made by H Sapiens for a while were more advance, but that is not a result of more inteligence on part of H Sapiens, that is the result of H Sapiens traveling through different terrains, adapting to different surroundings, while Neanderthal peoples did not travel, Neanderthals were adapted to their land and their tools suficed. It is the story of two different species, one established in its territory, with fauna and flora known and under control, and another moving beyond its boundaries, perhaps pushed by necessity, lack of food and opportunities ( climate change?) hence developing new tools as it moved through different situations.

    A lot of people see the craneal features of Neanderthals, and immediately assume it was a inferior species. Being stronger physicaly, and having a rugged face does not mean inferiority, or less inteligence. This only tells of different adaptations. For hundreds of thousands of years, Neaderthal peoples dwelled in cold climates, which called for larger noses and nasal pasages to warm up the air inhaled. Larger Supra orbital ridges were indeed perfect adaptation to cold air.That larger cavity warmed up blood and vessels needed to warm up cold air running up the nose tract.

    Had Neandethal peioples been less inteligent, savages as many try to portray Neanderthals in comparison to H Sapiens, then, given the superior strenght and power Neaderthals had, it would be Neanderthals the species that would had exterminated a fragile H Sapiens.

    As in todays civilizations and in our history, many times savages destroy the educated peoples. The barbarians did it to the Roman Empire. But it does not have to be a physical war like confrontation. Many times, the superior society retreats and refuses to comingle with the inferior ones, in a passive manner. While the inferior beings gain territory, the superior beings walk into a dead end road, and end up disappearing.

    It is my undertanding, from interpreting the latests studies on the subject, that Neanderthal people were superior to H Sapiens. Superiority can not be graded on tool fabrication alone, cognitive skills and behaviour can not be discerned from tools alone, but the record shows H Sapiens is a destructive and quarrelsome species, actively and pasively destroying other species living in the planet. We can not say that barbarians were more inteligent than the citizens of the Roman empire, although the Barbarians ended up conquering the Roman empire and its territories. I can not infer that H Sapiens is more inteligent than Neaderthal men, only because H Sapiens survived, while Neanderthal men did not.

    Desease as well as territorial competition , together with a search for H Sapiens free land, drove Neanderthal peoples to oblivion.

    Sometimes superiority of mind can push that individual to retreat and hence,indirectly, give away territoty. Sometimes the brutes end up taking over. Inteligence calls for inteligence, inteligent beings do not enjoy the company of less inteligent ones.

  5. From what I just read on the latest genetic sequence studies in 2010, archeological and dna drift analysis, it appears that in the Middle East, the two mixed and since there were more HS, the Neanderthal seemed to disappear, and also that the Western European groups of Neanderthals likely died because of quicker climate change that they couldn’t adapt to. But HS would not have been able to either. They were fortunate to live south of the death zone. The analysis also reports that Neanderthals had language skills, buried their dead, and cared for their sick. They were also good craftsman and great artists, equal at least, to HS. In this case, it looks more like a matter of luck than superiority. In fact, the more that is revealed seems to say that anyone with some Neanderthal genetics today is probably an enhanced specimen.

  6. Jaime

    “We can not say that barbarians were more inteligent than the citizens of the Roman empire, although the Barbarians ended up conquering the Roman empire and its territories. ”

    Much of your long discourse is dominated by stereotyped historical interpretations that have no basis in actual historical fact.

    Actually, the historical detail of the historical records show that the Germans were superior to the Romans in many ways. They had a higher moral code, they disdained the wild Roman sexual, and violent practices, and their code of honor made them a better bet in the Roman military than the Romans of the late empire who were often deposing one another, through assassination, either violently, or passively (poisoning). Romans suffered from genetic problems caused by lead poisoning in their plumbing as well as the practice of putting lead in their wine. The Romans were violent and aggressive, overcome by the idea that they must conquer and subdue “the world.” Many of the groups they conquered were only inferior in their aggression.

    But the Romans rotted from within. They became too cosmopolitan, suffered from too much cultural diversity,and too much liberalism. The only times Rome was strong was when austerity and discipline under a strong, moral leader prevailed. That liberalism allowed the superstitious religion of Christianity to rise and destroy philosophical reason, replacing it with a fanatical view toward an imminent end of the world. Read Gibbon’s “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”

  7. Your comments concerning the comingling of HS with Neanderthal are outdated. Recent DNA studies have confirmed that they did mix. Much of your commentary, for example, about whether Neanderthals made war on themselves or on HS, is pure speculation. We have so little in the way of findings that nothing can be said. All that is suspected is that HS had the ability to live in closer quarters, in greater population densities. It is likely merely a cultural passivity of Neanderthals since they were more thinly spread out, rather than that they were somehow a genetically peace loving species.

    You ought to read up on the latest findings rather than postulate so much using old stereotypes and hyperbole.

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