Not So Different

Researchers unearth little evidence to suggest modern humans are superior to their Neanderthal ancestors.

May 1, 2014
Tracy Vence

Models of modern human (left) and Neanderthal skullsWIKIMEDIA, MATT CELESKY, DRMIKEBAXTERPaola Villa of the University of Colorado and Wil Roebroeks from Leiden University in The Netherlands have a bone to pick with those who view modern humans as superior to Neanderthals—at least with regard to their intelligence. In a paper published in PLOS ONE this week (April 30), the researchers reported on their systematic review of archaeological records of Neanderthals and modern humans, through which they found little evidence to support the latter group’s intellectual dominance.

“The evidence for cognitive inferiority [of Neanderthals] is simply not there,” Villa said in a statement. “What we are saying is that the conventional view of Neanderthals is not true.”

Scanning the fossil records, Villa and Roebroeks found hints that Neanderthals may have actually been a lot like modern humans—they seem to have had similar social networks and capacity for innovation, the researchers showed. As to why the ancient hominins died off? The researchers concluded that all of the explanations for Neanderthals’ disappearance that they reviewed were based on incomplete data, and therefore, were flawed. They added that single-factor explanations for Neanderthal extinctions ought to now be disregarded, noting in particular that “their demise was clearly more complex than many archaeology-based scenarios of ‘cognitive inferiority.’”

“Stereotypes help people to order their world, but the stereotype of the primitive Neanderthal is now gradually eroding, at least in scientific circles,” Roebroecks said in a statement.