That's the message a pair of researchers delivered on Wednesday
after analyzing archaeological evidence detailing the capabilities
of Neanderthals, our closest extinct human relative, compared to the
early modern humans who first crossed their path about 40,000 years
The researchers said the findings show Neanderthals were anything
but the incompetent dimwits that they are often deemed.
These include: complex hunting methods that required a group effort
and planning in advance; likely use of spoken language; use of
pigments probably for body painting; use of symbolic objects like
eagle claws and perforated animal teeth, probably for pendants; and
the sophisticated use of fire.
"We found no data in support of the supposed technological, social
and cognitive inferiority of Neanderthals compared to their modern
human contemporaries," said Wil Roebroeks, an archaeologist at the
Leiden University in the Netherlands.
"The vision of primitive club-wielding brutes who in the end
vanished when superior modern humans entered their world has been
obsolete for a long time already," Roebroeks added.
Neanderthals prospered across Europe and Asia from about 350,000 to
about 40,000 years ago, but disappeared after early modern humans
trekked into Europe from Africa.
Many scientists had postulated that Neanderthals were too stupid,
clumsy and incompetent to survive a competition with the smart and
inventive modern humans who invaded their territory.
Paola Villa, a curator at the University of Colorado Museum of
Natural History, said the truth is far more complex.
evidence shows there was inter-breeding between Neanderthals and the
early modern humans, Villa noted.
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Male offspring resulting from inter-breeding were likely infertile,
which may have contributed to a Neanderthal population decline,
Villa said. The remnants of the Neanderthal population eventually
may have been assimilated into the larger modern human population in
a process that unfolded over a period of a few thousands of years,
"In a certain sense, they are not completely extinct because some
Neanderthal genes are present in our genome," Villa said.
There were some anatomical differences between the two species: the
robust, large-browed Homo neanderthalensis and the sleeker Homo
sapiens. For example, the bodies of Neanderthals were shorter and
stockier than modern humans, and the middle part of the face was
bigger, with a larger nose.
Writing in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, Villa and Roebroeks
highlighted some of the capabilities of Neanderthals.
They pointed to archaeological sites in Europe such as one a in
southwestern France, where Neanderthals probably herded bison to
their deaths by leading them into a sinkhole. At a Channel Islands
site, fossil remains of mammoths and woolly rhinos that most likely
had been the target of an organized hunt by Neanderthals were found
at the base of a ravine.
(Reporting by Will Dunham; editing by Andrew Hay)
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