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Neanderthals may not have been so unintelligent after all

Re-think that insult: The "dimwitted Neantherthal" stereotype may have been just been proven wrong

Sarah Gray
May 2, 2014 1:00AM (UTC)

Researchers from Leiden University in the Netherlands, and  University of Colorado Museum in Bolder took a look at an age old trope: the unintelligent Neanderthal. After pouring over archeological records, they found no evidence of humans having superior intellect.

Neanderthals, are part of the "homo" genus, which also includes modern humans or Homo sapiens. Researchers believe that Neanderthals lived between 350,000 and 40,000 years ago. And according to the Guardian, that they populated areas ranging from Portugal to the central Asia in the Altai mountains. Their fossil records vanish after modern humans arrived in Europe.


Scientists have long speculated, but never clearly determined what happened to the Neanderthals. Some theories speculated that modern humans were more intellectually equipped, were better able to hunt in groups, had broader diets or a variety of evolutionary advantages.

This study, published in the journal Plos One, however points away from this speculation. "The explanations make good stories, but the only problem is that there is no archaeology to back them up," said Wil Roebroeks from Leiden University.

Dr Paola Villa, of the University of Colorado Museum, said that the false assumptions of Neanderthal intellect arose because scientists were comparing modern humans to Neanderthals. Scientists should compare Neanderthals to humans who lived with them during the Upper Paleolithic era. Villa said that comparing humans with Neanderthals is like comparing humans from the 19th century to the 21st century, and concluding that 19th century humans were less intelligent because they didn't have modern technology.


So what did happen to the Neanderthal? Scientists still aren't sure. Some evidence suggests that humans and Neanderthals mated, but now that the Neanderthal genome has been sequenced scientists may be able to dig further. What this study does tell us is what may not have happened. "Stereotypes help people to order their world," Roebroeks explains. "But the stereotype of the primitive Neanderthal is now gradually eroding, at least in scientific circles."

h/t The Guardian, Science News

Sarah Gray

Sarah Gray is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on innovation. Follow @sarahhhgray or email sgray@salon.com.

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