Everything you know about the Neanderthal is wrong

A replica of a Neanderthal man. (Heinz Ducklau/AP file)
A replica of a Neanderthal man. (Heinz Ducklau/AP)

Neanderthal, according to Merriam-Webster: “A man who is stupid and rude.”

In the pantheon of contemporary culture, few archetypes are more familiar than the Dumb Neanderthal. Neanderthals, it is said, were hairy beasts — more creature than man, more brutish than sentient, more nose than brain. They belonged to a cadre of smelly hunters who carried sticks, dwelled in caves and had less shame in their dress than Rihanna.

From H.G. Wells’s 1921 short story “The Grisly Folk” to Pauly Shore’s flick “Encino Man,” the caveman is maligned or made fun of left and right. It was this lack of critical faculties, the conventional narrative goes, that contributed to their demise 40,000 years ago.

“In the minds of the European anthropologists who first studied them, Neanderthals were the embodiment of primitive humans, subhumans if you will,” Fred H. Smith, a physical anthropologist at Loyola University, told Smithsonian Magazine in 2003. “They were believed to be scavengers who made primitive tools and were incapable of language or symbolic thought.”

But new research suggests this is a profound misunderstanding of the Neanderthal.

According to a study recently published in Plos One that examined the 11 most common Neanderthal hypotheses, there is no evidence to support that Neanderthals were stupider than anatomically modern humans or that such intellectual inferiority spurred their demise. In fact, the study said, inbreeding and assimilation may be the reason they vanished.

“The disappearance of the … Neanderthals is routinely explained in terms of ‘superiority’ of modern humans, who had developed in Africa the ability to evolve complex cultural traditions and had become equipped with cognitive capabilities which allowed them to expand globally and replace all others,” stated the study, co-authored by researchers Paola Villa of the University of Boulder and Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University in the Netherlands. Meanwhile, “inferiority … has been at the core of many explanations for the demise of the Neanderthals,” they wrote.

That presumption, which spurred countless studies, may be baseless. “The evidence for cognitive inferiority is simply not there,” Villa said in a university press release. “What we are saying is that the conventional view of Neanderthals is not true.”

Myth No. 1: Neanderthals couldn’t plan. Researchers said that’s false because evidence suggests hominids hunted in groups. In southwestern France, they were smart enough to herd hundreds of bison to their death by steering them into a sinkhole. Another Neanderthal site yielded five woolly rhinoceroses at the base of a deep ravine, indicating that they could deploy complex hunting strategies.

Myth No. 2:  Neanderthals were too stupid to fashion tools using adhesives like humans. But according to the researchers, the Neanderthals did use a purified, distilled plant resin as an adhesive.

Artwork of a Neanderthal armed with a weapon. Prehistoric man was a skilled hunter. (AP Photo)
Artist’s rendering of a Neanderthal armed with a weapon. (AP Photo)

Neanderthals “were highly intelligent, able to adapt to a wide variety of ecological zones, and capable of developing highly functional tools to help them do so,” explained Smith, who has researched the hominids, but wasn’t involved with this research. “They were quite accomplished.”

What’s more, Neanderthals exhibited traces of culture, a barometer of intellect. At Neanderthal sites, researchers have uncovered ornaments and ocher, an earth pigment likely used for body painting.

Significance: Modern humans did pretty much the exact same thing in that era, suggesting there wasn’t any intellectual chasm between us and them.

So why are Neanderthals so profoundly misunderstood? Why are they continually portrayed as a bumblers when, in fact, humans destined to be more advanced were doing much as they were back in the day?

The researchers said comparing Neanderthals to modern man is like comparing apples and oranges.

“Researchers were comparing Neanderthals not to their contemporaries on other continents but to their successors,” Villa told her university press office. “It would be like comparing the performance of Model T Fords, widely used in America and Europe in the early part of the last century, to the performance of a modern-day Ferrari and conclude that Henry Ford was cognitively inferior to Enzo Ferrari.”

Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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