Magazine article History Today

Acting like Neanderthals: The Neanderthals Failed to Adapt to Climate Change and May Have Died out in as Little as a Thousand Years. Are We Making the Same Mistakes, Asks Mike Williams

Magazine article History Today

Acting like Neanderthals: The Neanderthals Failed to Adapt to Climate Change and May Have Died out in as Little as a Thousand Years. Are We Making the Same Mistakes, Asks Mike Williams

Article excerpt

In modern times we know that the Earth is warming and most of us accept the blame lies squarely with ourselves. We release gasses from burning fossil fuels that slowly but surely build up in the atmosphere to trap more and more heat. Glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising and already creatures are becoming extinct. Yet this is not the first time the Earth has faced such changes. In the past, climate change may have been entirely natural but the ramifications of a rapidly warming planet were much the same, including the extinction of species. Except that, long ago, among the species that disappeared were archaic humans--Neanderthals. Could the same ever happen to us?

Neanderthals were the first Europeans, occupying the continent from 300,000, possibly even 400,000, years ago, until the last one perished around 28,000 years ago. The landscape they inhabited was one of wildly fluctuating temperatures. Physically adapted to cope with the Ice Age--which affected Europe for much of the time they were around--they had bodies far more suited to a cold environment than ours. Their frames were stocky with short limbs to conserve heat, their noses were large and flared to warm and humidify the cold air that they breathed. But Neanderthals also had to deal with sudden periods of warming and even, on occasions, sub-tropical environments. During the last inter-glacial (the warmer period between Ice Ages) between 128,000 and 118,000 years ago, there were even hippos basking in sunny southern England. Sudden climate change was nothing new to the Neanderthals and, overall, they coped with it remarkably well.

When we consider that homo sapiens has only been around for a fraction of the time the Neanderthals lived in Europe, we realise that they must have been supremely adapted to their world. Even their brains were larger than ours but size is not everything and it is unlikely that the Neanderthal brain had the myriad of neural connections that are contained in a modern human brain. Crucially, these connections are vital for advanced intelligence.

Our brains contain a central processor as well as many subdomains. One sub-domain might relate to sociability, another to technicality, while another may relate to living in the environment. We can easily join up these sub-domains so that we can effortlessly think about buying an umbrella (technical sub-domain)to cheer up Uncle Fred (social sub-domain) since he has to go out this afternoon in what looks like rain (environment sub-domain). In so doing, we simultaneously use all three domains to process a single thought.

Neanderthals could not do this as each domain was entirely separate. So they would have to take the thought about Uncle Fred, bring it to the central processor and then root around in the other sub-domains to find accompanying thoughts, which they also had to bring into the central processor. It was as cumbersome as it sounds and it is highly likely that they would have given up halfway through. This explains why most of the tools that Neanderthals made conformed to a standardised design. They could not link up the requirement for a specialised tool (technical sub-domain) with the task that lay before them (environmental sub-domain) so they just fell back on a familiar one-size-fits-all solution. Moreover, after they had finished the task, they often discarded the tool. Forward planning was another area where the Neanderthals struggled.

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The lack of connection between sub-domains also denied Neanderthals any form of symbolic thought. One thing could never stand for anything else since this necessarily crossed the sub-domains. Yet we utilise symbolic thought all the time. The words on this page are symbolic--they stand for something else. The clothes you wear, the ring on your finger, the car that you drive, all have meaning to you that goes far beyond a mere physical presence. To a Neanderthal, all this was unfathomable. …

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