Neanderthal technology and intelligence

ResearchBlogging.orgFor many years people have been attempting to identify differences between Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis in an effort to understand why one species survived yet the other did not. Many of these alleged differences have fallen flat on their face, whilst others have achieved more success (albeit with a fair bit of controversy). Of this myriad of ideas, the most important are arguably those regarding technological differences between humans and their neanderthals cousins.

Homo neanderthalensis evolved in Europe, between 400,000 and 300,000 years ago from earlier European hominins. They were well suited to this environment, with a short stocky build which helps conserve body heat in the cold. Convergent evolution also prompted many human populations to also develop this adaptation.  But  it would seem that this was insufficient and they eventually succumbed to extinction ~30,000 years ago.

For over half of their time in Europe (130-36,000 years ago) neanderthals produced the Mousterian technological complex. This industry includes a range of techniques for creating a high quality toolkit, including the famous levallois technique. This method of creating stone tools involves preparing a core stone from which flakes can be removed and used. Since you prepared the core before hand, the flakes are already the shape you desire. Further, those truly skilled in the technique can remove the first flake in such a way that it prepares a second, allowing you to quickly get multiple flakes from a single core after the original preparation.

A sample of classic Mousterian tools, including some levallois points.

Whilst other industries and hominins also utilised the levallois technique, the neanderthals were the best at it. Even today only a handful of experimental archaeologists are capable of approaching the skill level neanderthals were exhibiting. On top of that, preparing a core requires that one has intent, long term memory and the ability to plan and make logical inferences about what the next step should be.  In short, levallois means that neanderthals were clever.

A projectile armed with microliths.

Humans, however, one-upped the neanderthals in many aspects. Although they didn’t produce the levallois cores like neanderthals, they were able to create blades of a similar – if not better – quality than the flakes neanderthals were make. Further, the human blade techniques were able to create bladelets. These are small blades, offering two key advantages. First you can get more of them from the same amount of stone, increasing efficiency. Secondly, they’re smaller so are weight less allowing you to make lighter projectiles without sacrificing killing power.

On top of that humans also made tools from other materials, such as bone and antler. Although these materials are not has hard as stone they can be manipulated with more finesse, allowing the creation of very fine points and tools. Bone sewing needles, for example, are one of the many advantages this technique was able to bring. Perhaps this is why humans had better clothing.

Further, there’s the symbolism and art humans produced. Whilst neanderthals did bury some of their dead with grave goods, these finds couldn’t hold a candle to what humans placed with their deceased. A Russian individual from just before the last ice age, for example, is coated in pigment and buried with massive ivory spears and thousands of beads. Neanderthals buried with some antlers or animal bones simply aren’t in the same league. And that’s forgetting the actual art itself. Humans created the famous cave art, statuettes such as the venus figurines and ceramic “bangers” which produced a primitive fireworks display.

The Sungir burial and reconstruction

In essence, humans did everything neanderthals did and then some. But then we have had several thousand years of additional time to develop these technological advances. If neanderthals hadn’t disappeared, could neanderthals have also started to make art, bladelets and non-stone tools? Or was there some fundamental difference between the two and humans were just smarter?

A reasonable case can be made for the former position. Although the Mousterian did last for over 100,000 years it did not persist unchanged. Neanderthals had not reached the limit of their technical capacity, instead continuing to modify their technology. They even started to produce bladelets and blades on a par with what contemporary humans were manufacturing. Although these aren’t as common in neanderthal assemblages, this is nonetheless a “human” technology being made by non-humans.

And then there are the “transitional” industries made towards the end of the neanderthal’s reign. As humans began to enter Europe ~40,000 years ago the neanderthals began to produce new, advanced technology including bone and antler tools. These new technological complexes include a mixture of older Mousterian tools with new technology once thought to be unique to modern humans. Again, we’re faced with a clear example of “human” technology being made by non-humans.

However, the exact relationship between neanderthals and humans at this time is unclear. One of the famous “transitional” sites was also inhabited by humans for a period, indicating a distinct overlap between the two species. Might the transitional industries simply arise from mimicking the humans and their new technology? Whether it was the transitional or human industries which came first is very hard to identify, with the date of the first human technology being consistently pushed back.

A sample of Aurignacian tools, the first made by humans in Europe

Nonetheless, human technology was more advanced than neanderthal technology even if you ignore the later advances. ~28,000 years ago we were making ceramic figurines whilst the neanderthals were going extinct. The crux of the issue is whether those advances would’ve been forever beyond the capacity of the neanderthals. Unfortunately, that’s a question we can’t answer at this time making inferences about whether or not the neanderthals had an inferior technological ability impossible to make.

Even if we could, would the technological distinctions between the two species reflect differences in intellectual ability, providing a very plausible reason why we survived but neanderthals did not. However, care must be taken when making such inferences as they can often be based on unfounded assumptions. For example, “simple” tools don’t necessarily mean that their creator is less intelligent. Many human populations have not developed technological advances (and even sometimes lost advances their ancestors made) yet they aren’t less intelligent than any other human population.

However, these problems are not impossible to overcome. With better dating and techniques it could be possible to try and work out which species were smarter. Unfortunately doing so is currently beyond us, although the field holds great promise.

Harrold, F.B., 2009. Historical Perspectives on the European Transition from Middle to Upper Paleolithic. In M. Camps & P. Chauhan, eds. Sourcebook of Paleolithic Transitions. New York, NY: Springer New York, pp. 283–299. A
Mellars P, Gravina B, & Bronk Ramsey C (2007). Confirmation of Neanderthal/modern human interstratification at the Chatelperronian type-site. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104 (9), 3657-62 PMID: 17360698
Roebroeks, W., 2008. Time for the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition in Europe. Journal of Human Evolution, 55(5), pp.918–926.

11 thoughts on “Neanderthal technology and intelligence

  1. I don agree with most points in this post.
    First, “humans” are both Neandertals and other Pleistocene human populations (i.e. Anatomically Modern Humans -AMH).

    A linguistic note: Both is spanish and in german, “Neandertal” is usually preferred to “Neanderthal”, so allow me to use this version.

    Back to the “human” point, I can cite as an example, Svante Päabo (world-recognised and leading autority on human paleogenetics, one of the barins behind Neandertal genome) talks, where he specifically uses the terms “humans” and “humanity” (usually, adding “different”, “older”, etc) to talk about neandertals.

    Second, your assumptions about exclusivity of “modern humans” blade technology is wrong. There are many blade assemplages, both Levallois-blades and volumetric “UP-style” blades on European and near Asia neandertal sites.
    Specifically, bladelets are both present in some MP and EUP Neandertals sites, and absent form many EUP “Modern Human” sites, meaning that any adaptative deduction taken fron those items it is meaninless.

    Here you can find relevant bibliography anout Middle Paleolithic blade asemblages:

    (2011 Prehistoric Technology Seminar Abstracts, IMF-CSIC)

    Your description of neandertals lithic management is deeply oversimplistic and does not reflect the evidence, In fact, Nerandertals used a whole range of lithic knapping techniques (Discoid, Levallois -many subtypes-, Quina knapping, flat bifacial reduction, etc…) wich are basically the same as the AMH fron similar chronologies did.

    Here you can find a series of 8 posts about Neandertal lithic management:

    Specifically the seventh one relates the main lithic knapping systems from neandertal record:

    “Art” and “symbolism” is present (more present every year in fact) in many different neandertal behavioural areas (ochre using, animal parts used as decorative items, decorated -i.e. engraved- items…). As i agree with the fact that proliferation of art is a later (EUP) feature (in Europe, as African registry looks older) this is better explained as a social and economic result. The opposite understanding means that recent H-G wich almost have no “parietal or mobile art” or “personal ornaments” (like some amazonian or australian groups) ARE “not on the same league”. Can we rule out that they are as intelligent as post-modern post-capitalism “humans”?

    The part of burial evidence is a bit contradictory, because in fact Neandertal burials are much more frecuent and objectively abundant that Early “Modern human” burials, being the gravetian (later UP) example of Sungir a “raresse” on Early UP grounds (in fact, it is an anomaly on all pre-Magdalenian record)”.

    At the end, i think you have some good points, because in fact the technological change may have a role in neandertal population’s demise and UP evident techno-economic changes, but your explanations seems wrong to me, because i think you have the wrong proxies (“humans” vs “another archaic hominid”, wich is a deeply mistaken idea, not based on evidence), and the wrong cause-effect mechanism (smarts+technology –> Smarts seems also wrong, and technology is as much a cause as a consecuence of social and economical history/adaptation os human groups).

    • First, I’d like to thank you for your excellent comment. It’s well reasoned, well sourced and agree with almost all of what you say. As such, I don’t think it can be levelled as valid criticism against my post.

      Whilst I do only mention levallois tools, I don’t try and insinuate or argue that they didn’t utilise other methods. Because of space constraints (I like to keep my posts to ~1,000 words) I picked out the method which neanderthals are particularly famous for using. Levallois typically features prominently in any discussion of the Mousterian, so it was that I focused on. As such, whilst it is a simplified description of neanderthal technology it is not misrepresenting it, so characterising it as “over-simplistic” is unfair.

      Similarly, I do agree that neanderthals were making blades and bladelets. As such I include this fact in the post. I do not omit the fact that neanderthals were making “human” tools and so I don’t think you can really bring that up as a concern.

      Finally, I am again in complete agreement that trying to infer intelligencce from technology is a tricky and often invalid process. This is why I close out with a warning against doing so with current information. So again, I don’t think you can really bring that point up as an issue. Most of my conclusion is dedicated to noting such inferences about intelligence are often unreliable.

      I have amended my post a bit to make these points a bit clearer, thank you for your comment.

    • Whilst I’ll try and look into it deeper at some point, my initial reaction is “mostly bollocks.” It seems to be just cherry picking neanderthal traits (which may or may not exist) which have a slight resemblance to autistic traits.

      For example, they draw a link between autistics developing slowly and neanderthals developing slowly. Their citation for the slow neanderthal development? “Buried Alive”, a creationist book in which (amongst other crazy things) the author tries to argue neanderthals were just 300 year old men based on the fact they had thicker skulls.

  2. Art is subjective- perhaps their perception of beauty (I think it’s fairly safe to say they had one) was different then ours. We could have stepped on their artwork and not have known it or, more likely, they may have expressed themselves in a form that keep over time (ex. they might have sung). We have no way of knowing. AMH probably expressed themselves in ways we could better appreciate. I note this only as a possibility.

    • I’m reminded of the symmetry of Acheulean handaxes. Many like to proclaim that this indicates the manufacturers had a sense of aesthetics and designed objects which were visually pleasing. If that’s the case, there’s no telling what they were doing in other, non-preserved media.

  3. Pingback: White people related to the Neanderthal - Page 6 - Christian Forums

  4. One of the concerns I have with comparing Neanderthal artistic.technical abilities with those of Early Modern Humans is, that by the time the EMH were painting caves and producing jewelry, they were no longer the same people that came out of Africa. they were EMH/Neanderthal hybrids and I wonder if that didn’t have something to do with that sudden increase in artistic ability. My other speculation is that Neanderthals, living in smaller groups as they did, required that each individual spend more time in the day to day tasks of survival. Later humans, living in larger groups, perhaps had more time on their hands?

    • The earliest evidence of jewellery and art is from Africa and predates the migration out of the continent and encounters with Neanderthals. The later examples from Europe are just more famous, since Europeans love to study Europe.

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