The name for humanity’s closest extinct ancestor shouldn’t be an insult to modern man, according to recent archaeological evidence. A new review published in Plos One claims that Neanderthals were just as advanced in brainpower, technology, and culture as their early human contemporaries.
According to the study’s lead author, Paola Villa of the University of Colorado Museum in Boulder, previous stereotypes of Neanderthals as primitive and brutish arose from inaccurate comparisons made between the ancient hominids and human groups from later time periods. When Villa and his colleague, Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University in the Netherlands, examined records of Neanderthal and human sites from the same point in time, they found that the two species left equally impressive evidence for a range of intelligent behaviors.
Neanderthals organized complex hunts, used natural pigments to adorn themselves, gathered animal tokens like eagle claws for use as symbols, and employed fire in ways just as sophisticated as those of humans. Said Villa, the “evidence for cognitive inferiority is simply not there. What we are saying is that the conventional view of Neanderthals is not true.”
Roebroecks explained that the negative opinion of Neanderthals is also derived from their rapid disappearance from the fossil record after modern humans entered their range in Europe roughly 40,o00 years ago. Previous scientists had hypothesized that Neanderthals were unable to compete with humans due to a lack of intelligence and creativity and were thus driven to extinction.
However, recent genetic studies show evidence of inbreeding between humans and Neanderthals, suggesting a different end to the hominids. The male offspring of these matings were likely infertile, causing a Neanderthal population decline, while the female offspring could have been assimilated by human groups. In the words of Villa, Neanderthals “are not completely extinct because some Neanderthal genes are present in our genome.”