Neanderthal technology on par with humans

The Neanderthals were a close relative of ours that lived in Europe from 350,000 years ago; until we turned up on the scene and they promptly went extinct and….this is all old hat for most of you. Research finding out that something thought to be the cause of the Neanderthal extinction didn’t actually kill them off is a topic that’s come up on EvoAnth a dozen times before and it’ll probably come up a dozen times again. So lets cut straight to the meat of the topic shall we. What aspect of Neanderthal inferiority has been disproven by recent research?

Their technology!

Now, in fairness this is an idea whose death has been a long time coming. For a while people though the Neanderthals were dumb brutes who couldn’t hope to match the technologically advanced Homo sapiens who rocked up and drove them extinct with their hyper-advanced pieces of rock tied to pieces of wood (aka spears). But this is a view that’s been on the decline for decades, if not a century. It turns out Neanderthals were perfectly capable tool makers after all (shock horror, a species with a brain like ours was smart like us). However, there has been an underlying view (even expressed here a few times) that Neanderthal technology still wasn’t quite as good as that made by modern humans. It wasn’t rubbish enough to explain their extinction, but we still got to feel a little bit superior about the size of our ancestors’ spears.

And that’s what this latest research (published just a fortnight ago in PLoS, aren’t I current!) purports to disprove. Armed with almost two centuries of archaeological research they re-examine the Neanderthal record to look for evidence of all the behaviours in which humans were thought to be superior. Turns out not a fat lot of human uniqueness survives this treatment. But first, what about humans was thought to be special anyway? To explain it as quickly (and hopefully least boringly) as possible; here is a table listing all the special things humans were thought to do that made them better than Neanderthals

I made this table for you, I hope you like it

I made this table for you, I hope you like it

And it turns out Neanderthals made:

  • Necklaces out of beads (personal ornamentation) and ometimes painted them with pigments (ochre). Plus each group appears to have used a different kind of shell for their beads, so that’s some “group identification through style too”!
  • They had a broad diet (including marine animals), cooking some of their food with fire.
  • They made hafted tools (i.e., joining two or more pieces together, like a stone tipped spear), made them from organic materials and had specialised locations where they made these tools.
  • They buried their dead with grave goods.
  • They were exceptionally innovative
  • The paper also argues “expanded exchange networks” can’t be identified in the archaeological record
  • And…then the paper ends.

Those of you with a keen eye (or at least, dedicated enough to have read the table) will note that not every aspect of human uniqueness has thus been found in Neanderthals. Where are their boats, their microblades, their specialised and standardised tools, their intensive exploitation of prey? Their missing from this discussion. Now, I’m not saying these factors were responsible for them being dead and us being not. The fact we crossed the sea is probably not the cause of our success. Simply that at the end of the day we’re in the exact same place we started: humans having a marginal technological advantage, but not enough to explain why we’re the only ones left.

If that’s a new revelation to you congratulations. For the rest of you, I’ve just wasted your time. Which I think is only fair because this paper wasted mine. But hey, it’s a fairly decent review and it’s in PLoS, which is free to access. So if this is a topic that interests you then it’s worth a read (here’s the link again, to save your scrolling finger from all the effort going back to the top of the page); but it does not remove the modern human superiority complex.

No, you have to be extra skilled to take down that; anatomically modern humans have mastered the art of arrogance.

30 thoughts on “Neanderthal technology on par with humans

  1. Stuff I’ve been reading lately admits that, at the time anatomically modern humans migrated north, their tech was about the same as Neandertal tech. Later, they and the Neandertals each had a burst of creativity and expanded tools and, especially in the case of AMH, art. But my question is,by that time, weren’t they Human/Neandertal hybrids and vice versa? Could that be somewhat responsible for the change? Hybrid vigor? Has anyone tested the percentage of Neandertal DNA in say, 30K year old humans? I saw where they tested the iceman and he was 8%

    BTW, I prefer the theory that, although due to rapidly repeating climate change, Neandertals were in decline and inbred, what was left of them was absorbed into the expanding human population. Over here in the US we had a similar situation with inbred mountain folk being overrun by us flatlanders. (See Deliverance.)

    • Any difference there was is negligible in physical terms. For example, sure, some people argue blades and microblades were unique to humans; but they are by no means some pinnacle of technology that could explain why we beat the Neanderthals. They don’t even seem to be a big improvement on what came before. And that was pretty much the point of this post, this whole approach of looking at technology has sort of devolved into trying to look for tiny differences that, regardless of their existence, have no impact on the field (hence why it may have been a bit more blase than normal).

      As for the gene thing; that is a serious gap in our knowledge. We have some human DNA from that period (and if not, it should be easy to get some. We have a lot of skeletons from then), but I don’t think anyone has compared it to the Neanderthals. The inbreeding thing does seem important though.

    • I prefer the theory that Neanderthals are simply aged human beings who lived to be up to a thousand years old. Which is why they have pronounced eyebrows and longer noses. Since those two features of the human face never stop growing what we have here is pre-noahic human beings, prior to the time that God shortened mans life-span.

      • If Neanderthals do only represent elderly humans then one would expect that we would only find adult individuals. After all, elderly people are adults. So the fact we find neanderthal teenagers, Neanderthal children, Neanderthal babies and Neanderthal foetuses – all with the characteristic defining traits of Neanderthals like their large foreheads – would pretty clearly disprove your idea. Don’t you think?

        I’m sending this from my phone so can’t easily provide a citation right now but if you really want one let me know and I’ll dig it up.

        • Think about how many children they would be having if they reproduced until they reached 800 years of age. The longest living man in the Bible lived to near 1000 years. There would be young people and babies all over the place.

          • So you are saying is that if a 900 year old man has a child then that child looks 900 years old? Or did you just throw the question in the too-hard basket and answer some random question that wasn’t asked?

            • I was merely referring to the fact that the pretentiousness of young people and children is possible in a population that has very old persons. I don’t think the skulls on the Children exhibit the same features as the adults. If so it is news to me, I stand to be educated. The Neanderthals were also a tall people but we have such persons today as well. It is nothing out of the ordinary. The Bible says there were giants in the land at the time of Noah.

            • Jim hits it on the head; we’ve found Neanderthals of all ages, which isn’t what you’d expect to find if they were just old humans. These young individuals, whilst not identical to the adults (because they still have some growing left to do), are nonetheless recognisable as Neanderthals.

              There are many examples so for brevity here are three of the most important:

              La Moustier 1. A Neanderthal teenager, complete with brow ridges, occipital bun, skull with a low, long profile and all the other good stuff we’ve come to expect from Neanderthals.
              Dederiyeh 1. A 3/4 year old Neanderthal whose skull contains many of the defining Neanderthal traits, including its low, long profile.
              La Moustier 2. A 4 month old Neanderthal, or possible foetus. “Many Neanderthal derived traits [traits unique to Neanderthals] can be seen in the lateral and basal portions of the occipital bones and the petrous portion of the temporal bone. Derived traits are also evident in the postcranial skeleton”

              Research based on these fossils, along with all the others, has identified that “species-specific morphologies are brought about during prenatal ontogeny” In other words, the defining Neanderthal or human traits are present at birth; and do not develop with age. Which is pretty clear evidence against your idea.

              Also, the Neanderthals were, on average, shorter than us

            • I meant plenteous in my last post. Thanks Adam for the extra details about eyebrows. And I am surprised these were not tall people. I am not sure where I got that Idea exactly. However It still seems that having traits is not any different today when we see nationality traits in Asians as different than traits in Africans and in Anglo Saxons …. (I add my website because I need some traffic.)

            • Also; I don’t mean to tell you your business, but I visit your site quite often. I don’t often get compelled to stick around or comment though because most of what you post is just links to other things.

              Don’t get me wrong, almost everything I write is based on something else too (like the paper for this post). But I try to add something to it. Make it undestandable for the layman, put it in the wider context of our understanding and so forth. I’d like to think I’m “adding value” to the overall topic. But if someone is just posting a link with a paragraph or so going “hey this is great” I think the value added is minimal.

              So maybe consider what you can bring to the discussion; how you can add value and maybe you won’t have to go tossing out the link to your website for traffic. But that’s just my 2 pence.

            • I suspect you didn’t think young Neanderthals were being pretentious (although I would’ve loved to see that. “Oh your stone tools are so last millennium”). And good to see you’re moving away from the “Neanderthals were really old people” idea. There’s no evidence for that.

              However, this “Neanderthals were another race” idea doesn’t hold any water either. The differences between races, both biologically and genetically, are tiny. Effectively insignificant in most ways. This is very unlike the differences between us and Neanderthals. Not only did we look different but our muscles were different, our brain was a different size and shape and much more.

              Look at it this way. There are ~8 differences in the mitochondrial DNA between two “races”. There are ~24 differences between us and Neanderthals. And ~40 between us and a chimp. In other words, proportionally speaking, the difference between us and Neanderthals is similar to the difference between Neanderthals and chimps. So you either have to accept chimps as a “race of neanderthals”, or hold an inconsistent view of the world.

              I’ll leave that up to you

  2. It is also interesting to ask the reverse question “Why didn’t they wipe us out?” They were stronger and had bigger brains.

    It comes down to the capacity to gather resources for each kilowatt of expenditure. We appear to be built to be for lower energy use than Neanderthals. Size clearly isn’t everything in brains. If we were a little smarter at a smaller energy requirement this could tip the balance. While there is genetic evidence of a bit of inbreeding it seems likely that there were there were combination of loose cohabitation, peaceful separation and active warfare. If we were not wiped out we were likely better at cooperative warfare – and/or defence – to overcome our smaller size and relative physical weakness. Judging from current human activity, we might have just been more systematically xenophobic. 😐

    It’s also possible that some other “left field” advantage like a better immune system could have done it. Is there any DNA evidence on that? I’m also wondering if there is any good evidence on the level of our DNA in Neanderthals – was it an equal two way swap?

    • I think the ultimate answer to that would just be “there weren’t enough of them.” Looking at the genetics of Neanderthals around the time humans showed up it looks like there were only 10,000 individuals or so in the whole continent. Which of course raises the the question as to why there were so few? I think the energy expenditure is probably a big reason; and would mean they would really have suffered during ice ages.

  3. The pendulum’s really swinging the other way now. Neanderthals used to be portrayed as troglodytes, now people seem a bit over-eager to point out how similar they were to us. Isn’t it likely that the truth is somewhere in between?

    As I understand it, although they had big brains, the proportions were different to ours. They had a larger visual cortex and smaller frontal lobes which suggests they had a higher visual intelligence but lower general or abstract intelligence to us.

    • Sometimes I think about explaining day to day things to cavemen, and how crazy it would seem. “Right, I’ve got these pictures that convey meaning. And this magic box I can use to make these pictures appear in a neat order and read other peoples pictures from anywhere in the world. And I use it to list possible things that our ancestors might have done”.

      • Clarke’s Third Law… from the uphill side! There have been various SF stories involving our distant ancestors encountering technology. If such were actually possible, I wonder if they’d be unable to ever wrap their heads around any of it, or (as some stores have it) they’d adapt and catch on once they got over the shock.

        Very vaguely related, I just finished re-reading James Hogan’s Code of the Lifemaker, which is about a self-directed alien planet-mining machine that, due to a damaging accidental brush with the fringes of a supernova, crashes on Titan a million years ago and spawns a race of intelligent machines. Humans encounter them when they’re in roughly a Medieval Renaissance level of civilization. Hogan’s casting a mechanical parallel to biological evolution — it’s kind of neat.

        • I think there’s a good chance they could. After all, technology has changed so much in the last couple of decades; yet everyone can keep up with it. Granted, some are better than others, but I’d be willing to understand even the most technophobic grandparent can comprehend what a computer is and what it could do, even though such a thing would have been completely alien to them when they were growing up.

          On the other hand, this is technology that has been introduced to us over a few decades. Maybe we just need some time to acclimatise to new ideas; which raises the question. If we were gradually introducing technology to our ancestors/the Titan robots; how complex an idea could we convey? Over a decade could we uplift cavemen to the Medieval era, but any further and they freak out, for example? Or could we gradually bring them up to our level.

          Which raises the other question: what about us? Could we have Star Trek introduced to us over a decade, or is there some limit on what we’d accept that even gradual implementation couldn’t overcome?

          • I tend to agree, and I was thinking very much about moderns using high tech. My parents are a good data point. Technophobes who were convinced they could never understand it all. But they weren’t cowering in the corner talking about “demons” either. (And mom did okay with email, at least.)

            One thing that might be hard for ancients is travel speed (car or even bike). When trains first came into use, some folks thought the human body would never withstand such unprecedented speeds as (gasp) 30 MPH. (Some had similar concerns about space travel and weightlessness.)

            It might be truly terrifying for an ancient to travel 60 MPH in a car. Even the pace and energy of modern life might be overwhelming. (Some moderns find it so. cf. “Hikikomori”) The speed of information might be impossible for them to grasp.

            As for Star Trek, I did have that introduced to me, and I want phasers and transporters. 😀 Seriously, I do wonder if many years of science fiction and future imaginings and modern technology already seeming almost magic…. perhaps we’d view the future as pretty much what we’d expected all along. (Where’s my flying car and vacation home on the moon? I was promised those things decades ago!)

      • One of St. Augustine’s contemporaries described him as being so intelligent that he could read without moving his lips. Wow! We could all go back to 500 + or – AD and be geniuses! Our cognitive abilities haven’t stopped evolving in the last 30,000 years either. Don’t think anyone from the distant pass would be able to keep up with the speed and complexity of life as we know it.

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      • Thank you for the link. Good piece but what I am interested in learning about is three dimensional visual
        abilities. Any info ?

        Thinking that is could very well be capabilities we cannot excavate that could have made the difference
        between us and the Neanderthals. Three D vision, for example, making some capable of employing bows
        and arrows while others could not. Implication possibly being that if one cannot see in 3D – calculate speed
        and distance- can such one think in terms of the 3rd dimension or even the fourth?

        Another developmental difference could be level of emotional “maturity” a group a group has evolved
        to. Capability to experience affection, build bonds, sensitivity for esthetics etc. Artifacts should be symptomatic, indicative, of such traits and probably intelligence as well, if analyzed from the correct perspective.This might assist in assessing levels of self awareness and consciousness. Wondering.

        Still seems incredible to me that Sapiens-es brains developed to the level we experience ( in some) based
        just on mutations and natural selection. Especially considering the time we have been around, compared
        to the Neanderthals and Home Erectus.

        • I’ve forgotten what it’s called, but it has to do with the ability to recognize and be comfortable with other people and, apparently it was somewhere around 150 people? I would think that Neanderthals had a lower threshold at which they became uncomfortable around strangers, but I don’t think that means violence necessarily. It could mean, lets go live deeper in the woods and get away from all those noisy people. Introverts.We’ll just trade, have an orgy and come home. I also think they could not have had a low threshold of aggression. Consider spending a long Ice Age winter stuck in a cave with your extended family and not wanting to kill your mother-in-law?

          • That’s Dunbar’s number your thinking of. Basically there seems to be a correlation between neocortex size (relative to the rest if the brain) and social group size. Although Neanderthals had a bigger brain it seems that they had a slightly smaller neocortex, so they may well have had smaller groups and perhaps more introverted as you say.

            However this all depends on whether you buy into the science behind Dunbar’s number. It isn’t disproven, but i think it’s also far from proven too.

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