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How Smart Were Neanderthals? Or, How Dumb Are We?

By Branden Holmes

 

Introduction

The long prevailing view of Neanderthals Homo neanderthalensis (King, 1864) as brutish, slow-witted, technologically inferior, cavemen (in the pejorative sense) is hopefully now behind us. However, it should never have taken 3-ply fibres recovered from a Neanderthal site (Hardy et al., 2020), to take the most recent example published, to infer that Neanderthals were about as smart as we are. Such technological finds, due to their fragile nature, are very rarely preserved, and offer a rather direct look at Neanderthal culture. And in that sense are truly marvellous, reminding us that we are, or at least were not, intellectually unique in the universe. Not to mention the potential for such intelligence to evolve again in the future, on Earth or elsewhere in the universe.

But leveraging such discoveries should never have been needed. In fact one does not even need to appeal to the reality that for thousands upon thousands of years Neanderthals lived alongside the other top predators of Eurasia, and wherever else they may have lived but have not yet been found: Cave Bears (Ursus spelaeus), Cave Lions (Panthera spelaea), Scimitar-toothed cats (Homotherium latidens), etc. etc. Any dim-witted biped stumbling around Europe during the Late Pleistocene (c.126ka-11.7ka) would simply not have survived, in an environment which makes today's Africa look rather tame. Of course, the comparison with today's Africa is somewhat unfair, since Africa itself has lost a great deal of its megafauna too (Faith, 2014). A fact that has only relatively recently risen to prominence. Including the spectacular discovery of a gigantic partial skull of a lion, equal in size to the largest Cave lions of Eurasia, and much larger than any hitherto found in Africa (Manthi et al., 2018). Suggestive of a previously unknown taxon, and not merely palaeoclinal variation (Ibid.). And which may very well have survived into the Late Pleistocene (c.126ka-11.7ka), since stratigraphic extent cannot be inferred based upon a single record.

Moreover, it is simply not true that only large carnivores pose a mortal threat. It is not merely a pun to suggest that hunting a Mammuthus primigenius would be a mammoth task. Not to mention the many other, much smaller, deadly creatures that inhabit the seven continents. Nor should it take the realisation that we Homo sapiens weren't exactly brimming with brilliant ideas. Evidence suggests we only began seriously farming around 11,500 years ago, long after the last evidence for Neanderthals at 28 ± 3 ka on the Rock of Gibraltar (Muñiz et al., 2019). And today's humans are hardly a paradigm of intellectual superiority, just look on YouTube. Or to take a truly contemporary example, people who get tested for COVID-19 but do not self isolate while awaiting the results. Especially when their coughing turns into a coffin for somebody else. No, the basic reason to suppose that Neanderthals were basically as smart as we are is the burden of differentiation which taxonomy, and to a lesser extent nomenclature, is predicated upon.

 

Taxonomy and Nomenclature

Given the current coronavirus pandemic, the medical term 'diagnosis' is all too familiar. And just as in non-medical contexts, the term indicates a problem or malady. Whereas in the unique sense that it is deployed in taxonomy and nomenclature, it means virtually the opposite. To "diagnose a species" is essentially to state what is healthy and robust about it. That is, how it differs from previously known species. This burden of proof of demonstrating relevant (consistent) difference is derived from the fact that neither commonality nor some types of difference will do the job. For example, knowing that two organisms are both green is compatible with them belonging to the same species, and with them belonging to different species. Likewise, two organisms being different colours is compatible with them belonging to different species, and to them belonging to the same species. The difference in colour may simply be ontogentically related, or due to sexual dimorphism.

Of course, species are categorised in terms of higher taxonomy too. For example, at the family (or familial) level or at the genus level. As far as we're aware, life on Earth has a single origin, possibly 4 billion years ago. So since Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens are categorised in the same genus, which evidence suggests arose only around 2-2.5 million years ago (Dunsworth, 2010), the two species share virtually all of their evolutionary history together. And so it is entirely natural for them to be extremely similar in many respects, including with respect to intelligence level. The differences between them are then relatively minor compared with the similarities. And so unless one can diagnose the two species based upon differential intelligence, then it is perfectly reasonable to assume that their intelligence is comparable, or at least to remain agnostic about it until further discoveries are made. Either way, it makes no logical sense to suppose that we humans are somehow arbitrarily unique, even amongst our closest living and extinct relatives.

 

Conclusion

Neither the fossil remains, nor the cultural items, which have been found to belong to the Neanderthals give any indication of significantly lesser intelligence than us. On the face of it this is no surprise, since we share so much evolutionary history, and have only relatively recently diverged. And yet there is a pervasive belief, and not merely among scientists, that our species is somehow intellectually superior to the rest of the animal kingdom. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are of comparable intelligence to Neanderthals, and hence asking "how smart were Neanderthals?" is the same as asking "how dumb are we?". And vice versa.

 

References

Dunsworth, Holly M. (2010). Origin of the Genus Homo. Evolution: Education and Outreach 3: 353-366.

Faith, J. Tyler. (2014). Late Pleistocene and Holocene mammal extinctions on continental Africa. Earth-Science Reviews 128: 105-121.

Hardy, B. L., Moncel, M.-H. et al. (2020). Direct evidence of Neanderthal fibre technology and its cognitive and behavioral implications. Scientific Reports 10: 4889.

Manthi, Fredrick K., Brown, Francis H., Plavcan, Michael J. and Werdelin, Lars. (2018). Gigantic lion, Panthera leo, from the Pleistocene of Natodomeri, eastern Africa. Journal of Paleontology 92(2): 305-312.

Muñiz, Fernando et al. (2019). Following the last Neanderthals: Mammal tracks in Late Pleistocene coastal dunes of Gibraltar (S Iberian Peninsula). Quaternary Science Reviews.