Were neandertals as smart as modern humans?

One of the fields in paleoanthropology I especially like is the cognitive and behavioral evolution. In particular, a challenging matter is the space that neandertals occupy in such field. There are many questions regarding their cognitive abilities and symbolic behavior. The big size of their brains suggests that neandertals would have had a genetic ability for complex cognition. But traditionally it was considered that they did not reach ‘the level’ of modern humans.


Neandertal view by paleoartist Fabio Fogliazza. Photo: Roberto Sáez

We believe that neandertals had a form of language, otherwise they would never have been able to organise themselves to the extent that they did. Assuming that neandertals were capable of some symbolic thought, can we imagine their behavior when they confronted the encroaching Homo sapiens species with different capabilities? Half a century ago it was clearly believed that symbolic thought was a key distinction between modern humans and neandertals. Our knowledge has increased a lot since then, and now we have some evidence suggesting that neandertals did have symbolic thought. Here I collect some of the key findings: 

1) In 2012 some scientists wrote an article in Science about the possibility of neandertals being the authors of some paintings in the Spanish Cueva El Castillo (Region of Cantabria): a round red disk and hand stencils, which are fairly basic but still suggesting a certain level of mental sophistication.

However we have one potential barrier for the knowledge we are building up. Because of re-dating of sites, the dates at the crucial time of neandertals presence are changing, mostly pushing everything back. For instance, the re-dating may push back the latest dates of neandertals in the Iberian Peninsula making them more unlikely to be the authors of some findings.

2) Another study released in PNAS in 2009 suggest a symbolic use of marine shells and mineral pigments by neandertals also in Spain (Region of Murcia).

Some findings in Gibraltar suggest neandertals used feathers as personal ornaments.

3) Again in Spain we are lucky to have in Atapuerca probable evidence of pre-neandertal rituals 430,000 years ago.

4) Neandertal remains are mainly associated with the Mousterian stone culture (300 Ka-35 Ka), which belongs to the Middle Palaeolithic and is more advanced than Acheulean (1.6 Ma-100 Ka). But in fact there were little changes over thousands of years, indicating that they were not highly innovative.

5) It is also often assumed that Châtelperronian (36 Ka-32 Ka), one of the earliest industry of the Upper Palaeolithic, was invented by neandertals, maybe influenced by modern humans they had contact with. The key site for Châtelperronian is Grotte du Renne (France), where some personal ornaments and other artefacts were found, associated with neandertal remains.

In their last period, the neandertals populations were clearly less ‘classic neandertal-type’ in their physical appearance. A controversial hypothesis says that the Châtelperronian could actually consist of hybrid neandertal-sapiens populations, thus not being anymore a representative case to evaluate the cognitive abilities of ‘classic’ neandertals. This article illustrates the cultural exchange that may have taken place between modern humans and neandertals 40,000 years ago.

6) Now, an interesting research in 2013 by the University of Oxford. It says that, although neandertals’ brains were similar in size to their contemporary modern humans, their brain structure was different: larger areas of the neandertal brain (compared to the modern human brain) were given over to vision and movement, and this left less room for the higher level thinking required to form large social groups. It would seem that the neandertals thought in a different way to us despite having a similar sized brain and maybe their ‘symbolic thinking’ went in a different direction to ours, one that left no visible signs.

7) Finally, an engraving found with geometric pattern at Gorham’s cave in Gibraltar in 2012, published in Sep 2014, may be the most compelling evidence yet for neandertal art so far.

At the time of the neandertals, modern humans were doing pretty much the same things: hunting, gathering, using similar tools, eating similar food. For some reason, our species survived to be able to do all those things and the neanderthals did not.

So, why did neandertals disappear? Was it a case of intellectual capacity? Was it just circumstances and luck? Was it a combination of violence, absorption and climate change? Actually, a little piece of neandertal still lives in our DNA… But this is a different story for another post.

14 pensamientos en “Were neandertals as smart as modern humans?

  1. Pingback: NutcrakerMan: Newsletter 15-sep 2014 | Nutcraker Man

  2. The answer is simple, the «modern» humans between 200,000 and 70,000 years ago in africa are not true modern humans. They look more like us than neanderthals, but were behaviorally similar.

    And yeah, it is highly suspicious that neanderthal behavior goes unchanged for so long and all the «evidence» for symbolism and such does not appear until there is already overlap of neanderthals and humans in europe.

    As for the «etchings» on the cave floor, the «scientists» involved are reaching. The markings are consistent with cave bears. And even if they were made by neanderthals, it would still be quite a reach to claim that the marks represented anything.

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  3. Sorry I disagree with almost any statement saying ‘the answer is simple’ in paleoanthropology. The neandertal techonology was not changing a lot but was very complex to produce and train. We do have some old evidence for symbolism (the modified white-tailed eagle claws from Krapina, dated to 130 Ka). The answer is very complex and my article tries to illustrate the different positions of this debate… Thanks for joining it 🙂

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    • Thing is, those eagle talons are about the only «evidence» for neanderthal symbolism that haven’t been knocked down yet. Making them an isolated data point. We also don’t have the original site to go back and check the dating, check for mixing of layers, etc. And I suspect the reason it hasn’t been «officially» refuted yet is because of the relatively recent publishing.

      The reason I said «simply» is because you didn’t seem to even acknowledge the relatively simple possibility that the reason the evidence for modern human behavior in the hominids in africa 200,000 – 70,000 years ago simply weren’t really modern humans. Atleast not mentally, if not anatomically (the fossils do show a few archaic characteristics not seen in people today).

      As for the complexity of the tool-making. That is debatable. I have heard some question the inferred «purpose» behind the levallois technique. For instance, that the last flake might just be failed attempt to regenerate the core. Rather than being a long drawn-out way to get a specific flake. Honestly, if they had the intelligence for that, I would expect more evidence of complex tools at neanderthals sites that we don’t have, so i’m inclined to believe that the complexity of the levallois technique is greatly exaggerated.

      I’ve been a part of the discussion for quite a bit…

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  4. In Spain we have more evidence of neandertal activity related to symbolism: Sima de las Palomas, Cueva de los Aviones, Cueva Antón. All of them correspond to a ‘pure’ neandertal occupation with no modern humans yet present. Same case for Gibraltar engravings. In Italy Grotta Fumane. France, Belgium, Netherlands. Is Sima de los Huesos an example of symbolism in early neandertal populations, 430 kya? It could be.
    On the complexity of tools, I still think levallois technique is complex and hard to manufacture and train to others. And they made many other complex tools: blades, limaces, scrapers, borers… There are thousands of great examples. I don’t think there is a fortuity in all the previous.

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    • Okay you raised some points here, so i’m gonna go one by one:

      1. Limaces, scrapers, borers, etc. are just names given to types of flakes. Some (like Robert Gargett) argue that most can be attributed to random flake shapes and not design for specific tasks.

      2. I couldn’t find links for every site you mentioned, but I found that most of them were burials. I don’t really think burials count as symbolism. Burials reflect mourning and emotional capacity. Which pretty much every mammal and bird today possess. Elephants and Corvid birds have been known to «bury» their dead in leaves. It doesn’t mean they have abstract thought or the ability to conceive of an afterlife. In fact, Richard G. Klein points out that the burials are quite shallow and may be hygienic rather than emotional. Which is yet another possibility.

      3. One of the sites referred to shells with ochre on it. Which also doesn’t count as symbolism. Ochre has many useful properties, we really don’t have a clue as to how neanderthals used it. Since it appears at many of their sites, and is quite messy (tends to get on everything), I think it’s quite a reach to say the shells are «makeup containers». They may not even have intentionally deposited the ochre on the shells.

      Even if it were true that they decorated themselves with ochre (I don’t think it is), it wouldn’t be abstract thought, it would just be aesthetic sense (which many birds today possess).

      4. As for spain, the occupation is still Europe prior to 50,000 years ago in some cases you listed. Considering we have actual remains (remains are relatively rare to preserve) in Italy and the UK of modern humans dating to around 45,000 years ago. Any artifacts after 50,000 years ago (even in Spain) are too close to modern humans to be evidence for any Neanderthal behavior as far as i’m concerned.

      Honestly, as a whole, I find all the «evidence» for complex behaviors among neanderthals to be very weak. And nothing you’ve raised so far has come close to convincing me otherwise.No ill wishes, would appreciate response (:

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  5. Hi, obviously the purpose is not to change your mind or mine, but to exchange views. I know I won’t change your view. But this topic is always a good discussion. On each points:
    1. I disagree with thinking about fortuity or random actions, considering thousands of examples from many different sites in Western Europe.
    2. Neandertal burials mean abstract thought to me, in the way they did them.
    3. I could agree on the possibility of an aesthetic sense. But I disagree in comparing human behaviour with birds or elephants. Even if you think that neandertals didn’t have advanced cognitive capacity like modern humans, you will agree that there is nothing to compare with birds or elephants.
    4. The Spanish cases are before modern human occupation (as a reference, identified at c. 38-40K levels).

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    • 1. Have you ever tried knapping before? You do get shapes and many times repeated shapes. It doesn’t mean they were making all sorts of tools for different tasks…(The other day I got 2 almost perfectly square flakes by accident) See the work of Robert Gargett (he has a blog, the subversive archaeologist)

      2. ? What do you mean by «the way they did them»? There was that one site allegedly with flowers buried, but it was relatively quickly refuted. How does burial indicate abstract thought? It seems to reflect emotional capacity alone to me. Which many animals have…

      3. ? For one Neanderthals weren’t human in my opinion, so i’m not comparing human behavior with birds and elephants. But your conclusion doesn’t follow from your premise, why not compare neanderthals with birds and elephants, I think their behavior is very comparable. I am of the opinion that if Neanderthals existed today, they would be higher animals up with elephants, cetaceans, corvid birds, and apes. But not remotely comparable to human beings, people. (FYI: I don’t believe neanderthals did have an aesthetic sense, but i’m just saying that an aesthetic sense wouldn’t imply abstract thought…red ocher has practical uses, even as a form of self-medication, and also as insect repellent, we have no idea what they used it for)

      4. We only can definitevly prove that humans were in spain 38-40k. But given that we have human remains in Italy and the UK prior to 43k, and that’s a similar time-frame to most of the rest of the world, isn’t there a reasonable possibility that humans were in spain at this time as well?

      And isn’t it incredibly suspicious that neanderthal technology goes so long with absolutely no change but suddenly becomes far more complex for ~5k years in Spain at a time when there is uncertainty as to whether or not humans were there? It is to me, just like all the other «evidence» for complex behaviors among neanderthals.

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      • In the Prehistory dept where I collaborate we have wide experience. We think mousterian tech is complex and not random. Another question is when comparing with more sofisticated tech e.g. gravetian, magdalenian, but that’s a different story.
        I’m defending that they did have cognitive abilities. They had cognition, and maybe 430 KYA pre-neandertals in Atapuerca already had cognition.
        I don’t think cognition is exclusive to modern humans. Archeo evidences are not clear, that’s obvious. And it’s not clear the record of occupation of neands+sapiens (eg. Spain).
        You can interprete evidence as related to cognitive abilities… Or you can’t. It seems that you take every possible evidence and argue to deny any possibility of cognition. I prefer to explore all the possible evidence of neandertal cognition – this is an exciting study. I admit there are doubts like you describe and the discussion is open and new finds happen… The answer is never simple.

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      • Honestly, I feel as though all the «evidence» for neanderthal complex behaviors does not hold up to scrutiny. And it disturbs me to see everyone except «finds» as gospel. If someone says neanderthals made jewelery, they must have made jewelery, it’s now scientific fact…it’s just silly. There isn’t enough critique in anthropology in my opinion.

        I also feel as though people really *want* neanderthals to be as smart as humans. People like the idea, and are desperate to see evidence that they were. But in my opinion it just doesn’t exist. I «deny the possibility of cognition» because I think the evidence indicates they lacked human cognition. I think people are grasping at straws to make Neanderthals into human beings. The fact that in sites where it is unclear whether humans are neanderthals made a particular artifact, the paper always chooses neanderthals for their headline confirms this for me.

        Still never got an answer on that thing with elephants and crows either. I don’t understand what point you are trying to make, why can’t we compare neanderthals to elephants or crows? Do you just think they *must* have been smarter than them because…reasons?

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  6. I think I can summary the core of our discussion & the answer you want re: comparison with crows or elephants. Neandertals are humans. They have cognitive abilities, same or lower than modern humans. Your starting point is, they are not humans. Now… we can re-start from the initial point 4 days ago 🙂

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    • I respectfully disagree. I think neanderthals are non-human higher animals, far more similar to ape, corvid bird, proboscidean, and cetacean intellect than human intellect. I do not see compelling evidence that neanderthals (or the so-called modern humans in africa and arabia prior to 50,000 years ago) were anything other than wild animals. I see no compelling evidence they possessed any of the unique mental capacities that make us human.

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