In the Neandertal Mind: Our Evolutionary Comrades Celebrated Vaunted Intellects before Meeting a Memorable Demise

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, September 18, 2004 | Go to article overview

In the Neandertal Mind: Our Evolutionary Comrades Celebrated Vaunted Intellects before Meeting a Memorable Demise


Bower, Bruce, Science News


Call a person a Neandertal, and no one within earshot will mistake the statement for a compliment. It's a common, convenient way to east someone as a stupid, brutish lout. From an evolutionary perspective, the invective has no basis in truth, say archaeologist Thomas Wynn and psychologist Frederick L. Coolidge. This interdisciplinary duo, based at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, has drawn on a range of scientific research and prehistoric finds to reconstruct how Neandertals thought and even what their personalities might have been like. Forget the stereotype of these extinct human predecessors, Wynn and Coolidge assert; for tens of thousands of years, Neandertals were as smart as the ancient humans that lived alongside them.

The "expert Neandertal mind" fostered impressive tool making and social skills that made survival possible for at least 100,000 years in some of the harshest environments ever inhabited by members of the human evolutionary family, Wynn and Coolidge concluded in the April Journal of Human Evolution.

Beginning approximately 140,000 years ago, Neandertal groups mastered the art of living in relatively small regions of Europe and western Asia, each no more than perhaps 30 to 40 miles wide, the researchers say. In such familiar habitats, Neandertals operated at least as well as, and often better than, Homo sapiens that had migrated from Africa into the same territory.

Around 50,000 years ago, however, the evolutionary tide turned in a subtle, but ultimately crucial, direction. Members of H. sapiens experienced a slight boost in the amount of information that they could hold in mind at any one time, probably because of a genetic mutation that triggered a modest brain reorganization, Wynn and Coolidge propose. The capacity to remember and mentally manipulate a few more bits of related knowledge led to a series of breakthroughs: innovations in toolmaking, long-range planning for seasonal hunting expeditions, storytelling, and symbolic expression through artwork and personal ornaments.

Armed with these advances, the Colorado researchers say, late-Stone Age humans became better at adapting to novel circumstances. From their African homeland, H. sapiens groups fanned out farther and farther into the wilds of Europe and Asia, while Neandertals stuck to their home territories.

"We're suggesting that, when making a stone tool or working on some other task, modern humans became able to hold more information in mind than Neandertals could," Wynn says. "Neandertals sometimes innovated, but they didn't reflect on innovations and rapidly improve on them, as people started to do around 50,000 years ago"

Whether in frigid ice age settings or mild Mediterranean locales, Neandertals couldn't effectively compete with the incoming H. sapiens, Wynn says. By about 30,000 years ago, Neandertals died out.

ANCIENT EXPERTISE Scientists fall into two general schools of thought about what happened to the Neandertals. The minority view holds that modern humans are, in part, Neandertal descendants. For those in this camp, Neandertals were a heavy-boned, beetle-browed variant of H. sapiens, or at least so closely related to us that they blended into the broader human-gene pool through interbreeding (SN: 5/22/04, p. 328). Neandertals thus would have been biologically and mentally equal to H. sapiens.

The majority, position, on the other hand, regards Neandertals as a distract species in the Homo genus. Neandertals and their ancestors--who originated in western Europe as many as 800,000 years ago, according to fossil finds in Spain--evolved in cold areas, far from the African tropics that nurtured H. sapiens (SN: 6/14/03, p. 371).

Artwork, ceremonial goods placed in graves, and other discoveries made mainly at Stone Age H. sapiens archaeological sites indicate to adherents of this view that our human ancestors won the evolutionary competition thanks to an early mental edge over Neandertals in areas such as symbolic thinking and planning for the future.

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