an imaginative look a palaeolithic life

Neanderthals: stupid or not?

Some people seem to get some kind of a complex when discussing the issue of how intelligent neanderthals were.  They seem to be threatened by the idea that they might have been nearly as clever as us, or even (shock horror!) as clever as us.  It’s quite bizarre really.  Some reject the idea that neanderthals could possibly have had language, suggest that neanderthal stone tools don’t show any evidence of high cognitive functions (which implies that they hit rocks together randomly and spearheads, hand axes, scrapers and awls just fell off them) and they seem to want to cram all of human cognitive evolution into the 600,000 years after the lineages that led to Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis split, including all the evolution of language, even though the common ancestor to both, Homo heidelbergensis, already had a large brain and was capable of doing things like hafting spearheads onto pointy sticks to make spears.

There is a danger, I agree, of reading too much into archaeological evidence and assuming fanciful things that are just not supported by the evidence.  And it’s important not to sapiensify the neanderthals.  (I don’t like the word “anthropomorpicising” in this context because it means “to make human-like” and neanderthals are human, so “making humans more human-like”? …errr what? so I invented the word “sapiensify” instead, meaning to make other species of humans more sapiens-like.)  They did evolve on a different lineage to Homo sapiens from a slightly smaller brained human species, so you’d expect to find some cognitive differences.  And honestly I have come across some examples of not only gross sapiensification, but also of wrongly applying modern cultural values to them.  The most nauseating example of this was in one article I read, describing neanderthal men as “metrosexual” because they possibly spent a lot of time each day preparing and processing animal skins, i.e. making clothes.  Never mind that they lived in a sub-arctic climate where clothes were possibly a matter of life or death, spending time making clothes is “metrosexual”…!!

However, most of the evidence suggests that neanderthals were very clever.  In fact, they appear to have been the cleverest species of life that ever lived, with the probable exception of the closely related species, Homo sapiens.  People talk about how clever chimps and dolphins are, well I’d like to see chimps or dolphins make clothes for themselves using middle palaeolithic tools they made and the hides of animals they co-operatively hunted.  So I really don’t get how some Homo sapiens people can be all “oh, how clever!” at chimps and dolphins (or at Homo habilis or Homo erectus) and then turn around and call neanderthals stupid.  The only, and I mean ONLY explanation for this is that some Homo sapiens people feel threatened by this other species of human that’s so close to us in intelligence, and so they have this subconscious need to play down the level of intelligence of the other species.  Rather like how sometimes a person who’s top of the class feels threatened by the one who’s second from top of the class far more than someone who’s just average.  So they will tell everyone how stupid and nasty the second-from-top person is, while being all happy and encouraging to someone who’s struggling to get a C grade.  That is honestly what some people are like when it comes to discussions of how intelligent neanderthals are.  And the irony of it is that if you asked them to make themselves a Mousterian spear head and haft it onto a spear they fashioned out of wood they collected themselves from the wild, and sent them out to use them to co-operatively hunt very large animals with it, they would fail, epically.  And if they don’t believe that neanderthals could speak, then they can wear a gag so they have to do all of that without using anything other than grunts, facial expression and body language to communicate.  I would love to be a fly on the wall in that experiment.

pic: created by NASA, public domain
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2 responses

  1. Varda

    The consistent underestimating of prehistoric man drives me nuts sometimes. I mean, they survived to reproduce in a world no less complex and dangerous then our own. A motivational speaker the other day, described early man as having a brain that “weighed less than two pounds.” Because of this “They weren’t able to reason the way we are, so they’d just put their hand into the fire without being able to figure out it’s hot first.”

    I’m sorry. My cat’s brain weighs less than two pounds and she’s able to reason a lot more insightfully than that. She is also able to predict events and I’ve seen her practice moves she’s used in hunting.

    June 17, 2013 at 17:01

    • Yes it totally does my head in too… if early humans were that stupid they’d never have survived and we wouldn’t have evolved… and if they were that stupid, how did they manage to light the fire in the first place? If you don’t understand that fire is hot, you’re not really going to stand much chance of lighting one or keeping it alight or know what to do with it…. I think people who say stuff like that really don’t think things through logically. Quite ironic really LOL

      June 18, 2013 at 11:41

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